By April Klimley
The Florida Highwaymen are coming back to Boca Raton this fall with their vivid sunsets and sweeping coastal panoramas of Florida at Florida Atlantic University, accompanied by works of A.E. “Beanie” Backus, the landscape artist who inspired this influential group of African-American painters.
The original works on display by Backus are owned by FAU and have never been shown in a public gallery before this.
The exhibition will bring to the public new scholarly insights on the work of Backus and his relation to these young artists during Jim Crow Florida in the 1950s and 1960s. Detailed wall texts, accompanied by historical photographs, will provide viewers with a context to examine the art that contributed to the national image of the “Florida Dream.”
The Florida Highwaymen were African-American painters of the late 1950s and 1960s who managed to gain commercial success — and escape the grueling manual labor jobs in the citrus groves — through a combination of mass production of landscape art and steady sales to the tourists and businesses flocking to Florida at that time. Some of these artists resumed painting in the 1990s and are alive today.
“After World War II, Florida was viewed as a tropical paradise,” explains Arlene Fradkin, professor of anthropology at FAU, who is co-curator of the show along with Brian McConnell, associate professor of art history. “But there was also the harsh reality of the Jim Crow South. That was part of the Florida scene, too. There was a big racial divide.”The exhibition will include a series of public lectures by Florida-based humanities scholars that will examine the social, historical and political context of these artists. It will also include a panel of contemporary African-American artists who will critically examine the paintings and offer fresh perspectives on content, style and aesthetics.
“The story of the Highwaymen is very inspiring,” says Charlene Farrington, director of the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, which focuses on black history, in Delray Beach. “The artists were people who were struggling to make a living and they didn’t want to earn it through farming.
“Timing is everything,” she adds. “Their mass-produced method of production worked well since the tourist industry was growing; hotels and shops needed artwork for the walls.” The Spady Museum will offer a lecture by Dr. Tameka Hobbs of Florida Memorial University in Miami on the historical and cultural context of these painters on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. The lecture is funded by the Florida Humanities Council.
Individual Florida Highwaymen produced dozens of landscape images — some sold for as little as $25 and are today worth between $3,500 and $5,000. The artists usually sold these paintings to tourists, store owners, hotels and shops along Florida thoroughfares such as Dixie Highway and A1A. Black was particularly well-known for successful selling. He frequently loaded up his car with 50 or more paintings from the artists — some barely dry — to sell along the road.Twenty-six Florida Highwaymen have been officially recognized by the Florida Artists’ Hall of Fame. Works by eight will be on display at the Ritter Gallery of FAU. The founder of the group, Alfred Hair, briefly studied with Backus in Fort Pierce. He and one of his colleagues, Harold Newton, went on to mentor many other Highwaymen artists.
All these artists were heavily influenced by Backus’s vision and landscape style. Backus studied briefly from 1922-1923 at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, but then returned to his hometown of Fort Pierce, where most of the Highwaymen lived and/or congregated.
Backus is considered the seminal painter of Florida landscape painting. His earliest paintings were done very deftly with a palette knife and bold juxtaposition of color. The drama he captured is visible in all his paintings on view such as Stormy, where palm trees tilt fighting against the force of a windstorm on the coast.
One reason the Florida Highwaymen emulated Backus’s overall approach to landscape painting was that their main impetus was not to produce groundbreaking art. It was to mass-produce landscape paintings and quickly gain commercial success in a red-hot market. Yet each artist developed his or her own variation of the Backus formula.For instance, Alfred Hair frequently placed animal life such as birds in his landscapes like Spring on the Saint Lucie. Livingston (Castro) Roberts was known for his detail and precision, which is visible in Riverhouse Sunrise and reminiscent of certain European landscape painters.
In his artwork such as Turbulent Backcountry, Willie Daniels frequently displayed a more impressionistic style than some of his peers. James Gibson, who had the advantage of more college education than most of the Florida Highwaymen, was able to develop a variety of styles in his long lifetime, although Moonlight Indian River Palms certainly emulates the mood found of some of Backus’ most successful work.
R.A. “Roy” McLendon’s Savanna Sunset captures a different sort of landscape. He saw his own work evolve after he left for Canada after Hair’s tragic death in 1970 and then returned to Fort Pierce again in 1975. Mary Ann Carroll, the only woman in the group, started painting at 16 and sold her first work at 18. She is particularly well known for her brilliantly colored royal poincianas, as shown in Flame Tree. She gave a poinciana painting to Michelle Obama in 2011 when invited to the First Lady’s 2011 Luncheon.Harold Newton, whose Pink Cloud Landscape is in the exhibition, is usually considered the best painter of the group, an artist who took inspiration from the Backus style, but went beyond it.
Consulting curators for the exhibition included, among others, Dr. Michael D. Harris, associate professor of art history, Department of African American Studies, Emory College and Gary Monroe, senior professor, Daytona State College, author of one of the most definitive books on the Florida Highwaymen. Funding for the exhibition came through a grant from the Florida Humanities Council, as well as funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and several departments and offices of FAU.A.E. Backus and Florida’s Highwaymen: History, Commerce and Art opens Thursday night, Sept. 15, and runs through Nov. 19 at the Ritter Art Gallery on the campus of Florida Altantic University in Boca Raton. Admission is free; gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday 1 to 4 pm, and Saturday from 1 to 5 pm. For more information, visit www.fau.edu/galleries.