Florida bandits defied Jim Crow law with their art
Despite being shut out of Florida museums and galleries in the 1950s, 26 black painters captured Florida’s tropical landscapes and managed to make a living – and a name – through their art.
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Ohen you think of Florida, what comes to mind? The mere mention of the state might conjure up images of palm trees on sandy beaches and fronds rustling in a gentle breeze. Seagulls, sailboats and sunsets the color of ripe citrus fruits. Rusty red poincianas that wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy tale. It’s a quintessential tropical paradise that only truly exists in the imaginations and paintings of Florida’s legendary Highwaymen.
The Florida Highwaymen were a group of 26 black landscape painters who lived and worked in and around Fort Pierce, a coastal town 136 miles north of Miami. It was not a formal association, but rather a circle of friends and acquaintances who inspired each other and were united in their mission to make and sell art. They almost never worked from observation (that is, they did not paint reality), instead composing their pieces from memory to capture the dreamy, tropical essence of the state. Between the 1950s and 1970s, the Highwaymen, which eventually included a woman, Mary Ann Carroll– produced over 200,000 paintings, most of which were not dated, titled or officially inventoried in any way.
Their story began in 1955, when 21-year-old Harold Newton, then a specialist in religious art, visited regionalist painter A. E. “Bean” Backus in his home studio in Fort Pierce. Backus encouraged Newton to stop painting scenes from the Bible and focus instead on what was around him: Florida. Newton, who was almost instantly taken with Backus’ art style, made the switch. At that time, nearly a decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black Americans living in the Jim Crow South were barred from exhibiting their art in museums and galleries. . So Newton began selling landscapes on his bicycle along Highway 1, a busy stretch of road filled with businesses such as motels, real estate agencies, law firms, and doctors’ offices.
Newton continued to paint and sell, peddling his paintings and inspiring a few other local artists with his technique. But it wasn’t until the early 1960s that what is now the Highwaymen’s signature style really took off. In 1958, Backus took another painter under his wing: the prodigiously talented 14-year-old Alfred Hair, introduced to Backus by one of Hair’s high school teachers. For three years, Backus mentored Hair, who later pioneered the quick and ingenious techniques that became the hallmark of Highwaymen’s art.
To reduce costs, Hair used the Upson boardan cheap building material similar to dryweverything, instead of canvas. He would then frame his pictures with crown molding, also to cut costs. And instead of working on just one painting at a time, Hair worked on dozens, even inventing a makeshift, assembly line-style easel. He would work so fast, in fact, that the paintings he sold were often still damp.
Newton and Hair, who became friends, made a big impression on other local black painters, who saw their success and were inspired to pick up their own brushes. Hair’s speed painting techniques helped artists produce large volumes of art quickly, while Newton inspired them to sell paintings from the trunks of their cars, hence the Highwaymen.
But, of course, the Highwaymen needed an audience – and it came in the form of a staggering demographic boom. Prior to World War II, Florida’s population hovered around 1.8 million (slightly less than that of Arkansas). By 1960, this number had doubled due to a combination of factors, including statewide real estate speculation targeting northern retirees, NASA employees moving to Cape Canaveral to help with the space race, and, naturally, tourism.
It was the days before the mass reproduction of art, and those millions of new Florida residents needed something to hang over the couch. A newcomer could buy a 48-inch-wide picture of a marvelous sunset, perfect for the living room, from a Highwayman for $20, or about $182 by today’s standards. Since they were so cheap, highwayman art found its way into many hotels across the state, and tourists would often buy a painting or two to take home.
However, navigating Jim Crow laws as a black entertainer in Florida – which handed down some of the toughest sentences on record in the country – was no picnic. Fortunately, the Highwaymen had a little help from Hair’s mentor, Backus, who was well established in the art world (and who was also white). As the Highwaymen grew in number, Backus – a Fort Pierce native who studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design – championed the painters, often offering them constructive criticism, buying them supplies of art whenever they needed it and letting them sleep in his studio if they needed accommodation.
“It was a Jim Crow era where African Americans weren’t supposed to come in through the front door,” says J. Marshall Adams, executive director of the A. E. Backus Museum and Gallery. “They were supposed to come in through the back door. Backus was completely different. He expected [everyone] to come to his front door.
The Highwaymen operated successfully throughout Florida well into the 1970s, but interest soon began to wane. In 1970, Hair was murdered in a bar fight. Known for his big personality and even bigger ambitions (he believed his art could make him a millionaire), Hair had been a key figure in the movement, and his untimely death shocked the Fort Pierce community and had a chilling effect on the group. Some of the Highwaymen even paused to mourn his passing. Then in the ‘In the 1980s, the cities of the state grew and modern art took over. Art Deco, elegant cars and linen jackets à la miami vice reigned. Idyllic images of sunsets on a sandy beach have been pushed aside.
The Highwaymen never really recovered, but many continued to paint. Newton enjoyed many years of artistic success until his death at age 59 from complications from a stroke. Caroll, the only woman in the group, lived in obscurity for most of her life but gained recognition for her work with Michelle Obama. First Lady Luncheon in 2011, where she presented one of her paintings to the former First Lady.
However, you can still find evidence of the group’s legacy in places like the historic, seaside ocean grill at Vero Beach, where bandit art hangs on the walls, at the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Where Florida Artists Hall of Fame. And here at least one original Highwayman still creating art.
The legend lives on
Most days between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., you can find RA “Roy” McLendon hunched over a canvas in his small, air-conditioned studio and gallery in the Vintage Vero Building in downtown Vero Beach, Florida. His hands may be shaking, but his eyes are still “pretty good,” especially after having his cataracts removed, he says. McLendon is one of Florida’s last remaining highway robbers.
McLendon was born in 1932 in Georgia and grew up in a family of migrant farm workers with 13 siblings. In 1946, the McLendons moved to Delray Beach, Florida, and made a living picking beans for a dollar a day. Child, McLendon loved to draw and often used a stick to draw pictures in the sand. “When I was little, I drew on the floor and waited for my brothers to come home from school to show them,” he says.
When he was 18, McLendon decided to strike out on his own and moved to Miami for a while before eventually settling in Gifford, a small community near Fort Pierce. In 1955 he met Newton and, like other highway robbers, was inspired to try to sell his art to supplement his income. McLendon is best known as the group’s “storyteller” as his compositions often also include people, rather than just landscapes.
These days, whenever McClendon makes a public appearance at a museum or a show, it’s almost certain that his friend and fan Roger Lightle drove him there.
“I look at [Roy], I look at his paintings. They are a reflection of who he is,” says Lightle, an avid Highwaymen art collector. He at amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the band and a collection of around 500 Highwaymen paintings, that he displays to his Vero Beach House and Gallery. “I can kind of figure out who he is based on the painting itself.”
McLendon, however, has no use for legacy conversations and reflects on his past works with an air of pure pragmatism. For him, the most important painting is the one currently on his easel. “All I did was paint and sell,” he says. “I don’t even have my own paintings at home. I always had a job [in construction] because I had a family, I worked and I painted. It was hard. I had to do what I had to do, I love to paint.
Although McLendon may not think about his legacy, his artistic impact lives on through his sons, Roy Jr. and Ray, both painters who focused on Florida landscapes, much like their father. Ray owns his own studio and gallery two blocks from his father’s, Bandits of Florida Landscape Art Gallery. Roy Jr. can sometimes be found exhibiting his work at festivals and shows across the state. And while they may not be selling art out of the trunks of their cars, Roy Jr. and Ray keep the Highwaymen’s memory (and legacy) alive through their paintings – from candy-colored Florida skies and all.