Photo by Kristin Laughter
Roy McClendon looks at some of his fellow
highwaymen's paintings at the Old Courthouse
Heritage Museum in Inverness.
Behind the silhouette of a lone, bent palm tree, the late-day sun sets the water on fire. Moss hangs from the branches of a cypress tree and the sky glows tangerine.
The worn, dark wood frame betrays the painting’s age, most likely several decades. The picture looks like something your grandmother might have hung in her living room behind the sofa, or a vintage find buried in a cardboard box at a neighbor’s garage sale.
It could be just another Florida landscape painting, except for the plain white tag on the upper left-hand corner: “Highwayman J. Gibson $1,250.” It’s no ordinary painting. It’s a part of Florida’s artistic history.
The Florida Highwaymen story began in the 1950s in Ft. Pierce. It is the tale of a group of black painters who bypassed the artistic conventions of the segregated South and in the process began Florida’s contemporary artistic tradition.
At a time when galleries would not exhibit work by black artists, the Highwaymen took to the roads to sell their Florida landscape images for about $15 to $45 each. They painted quickly, often selling their paintings before they were even dry.
The small group of artists, schooled by Ft. Pierce artist A.E. “Beanie” Backus, grew to include 25 men and one woman, creating an estimated 200,000 paintings over the next three decades.