While browsing through a Florida antique shop several years ago, I came across an impressionist landscape painting whose rich, vibrant colors conveyed a Romanticism reminiscent of the Hudson River School: blustery palms, turbulent clouds, an unspoiled beach. It depicted a bygone era of Florida, and it seized my imagination.
I learned the painting was one of at least fifty thousand produced mostly in the 1950s and 60s by a band of twenty-six African-American landscape artists known as the Highwaymen. They earned the name in the mid-1990s when they began to gain recognition by the art community.
When I began delving into their history and poring over their paintings, I discovered an amazing story behind their work.
In the racially segregated South, the Highwaymen took to the roads, shoving sometimes dozens of paintings—many of them still wet with oil—into the trunks of their cars. Calling Fort Pierce their home base, these itinerant artists sold their works at Florida roadsides for often no more than twenty dollars apiece (today they are worth thousands). They also peddled their paintings to business and motel owners, a practice that would later taint their work with the disparaging “motel art”
In his book The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters, Gary Monroe gives a historical account of this maverick group of artists, whose savvy marketing skills saved them from laboring in orange groves:
Commerce is germane to the story of these emerging artists. Their unabashedly market-driven agenda challenges the notion of ‘pure art,’ while adding credence to the idea that art results from a collaboration between artist and consumer.
Monroe’s insight is interesting because he notes how the Highwaymen’s collaboration was not between artist and elite consumer, as we often see with gallery art, but between artist and common consumer. Both then and now, consumers of the Highwaymen’s idyllic paintings run the socioeconomic and racial gamut.
It seems evident to me their art was greater than its moteldom namesake, even when they completed many of their paintings in less than an hour, using Upson board in lieu of canvas and inexpensive crown molding for frames—even though they painted for money.
Given their utilitarian approach, which I initially thought was rather anti-artistic, I wondered: Why do their paintings resonate so much with me?
There are a few reasons.
For one, their art impresses me with its courage. It testifies to their perseverance in eking out a living amid racial inequality. And whether or not they knew it at the time, their white customers didn’t merely buy their art; they bought into the people who created it—a prophetic investment, considering the civil rights African Americans would later receive.
Moreover, their paintings are visionary. The Highwaymen produced their works for people other than themselves, but not only for the sake of pleasing the customer while sacrificing their personalities in the process. They possessed a vision, and they pursued this collective vision amid the practical demands of daily life.
Furthermore, their art is sincere. It’s unselfconscious. It conveys immediacy and transparency. It was the product of an honest day’s work. Sometimes the Highwaymen didn’t even sign their paintings, as though echoing the creation of religious art in medieval times, when the self-importance of the artist in relation to his creation took a backseat.
Lastly, their art demonstrates entrepreneurship. These artists knew how to connect their work with the common person. Their paintings are visceral, earthy—probably like the Highwaymen themselves—and possess a universal appeal. This collaboration between artist and common consumer enabled these artists to make a living and, at the same time, to offer an expression of beauty to the customer.
So, some sixty years later, their art remains important and unique. Whether or not you are an artist in the strict sense, I believe you would value and learn from their work all the same.
Bart Price is a husband, Six Sigma Black Belt, and seeker of beauty and truth. His most recent articles and essays have appeared in the John Jay Institute’s The Statesman, Ethika Politika and the National Catholic Register. He has published a poetry book entitled The Wild Woods Edge and creates and sells what he calls Photo Poems, combining his original poetry and photography on 8×10 mats. All his art can be found at www.bartprice.com.
Cropped image by Larry Miller via Flickr.