By Andrew J. Skerritt
The paintings pick you up and transport you to distant and exotic – yet familiar –places.
Each painting, whether it’s the majestic orange and red sunsets, the brightly hued egrets, flamingos, palms, or royal poincianas and oaks draped in Spanish moss, is the work of one of the Highwaymen, the mythic African American painters whose works of art imprinted the Sunshine State’s tropical landscape into the popular American imagination.
“They are a sort of window to Florida’s past -- an idyllic time, unspoiled by development,” said Bruce Graetz, a senior curator at the Florida Museum of History.
The paintings – 26 in all – one for each Highwayman living and dead – comprise a complete Highwaymen series that is the result of an ambitious project 10 years in the making.
“To my knowledge, it’s the only place in terms of public exhibits, where visitors can see all them in one location,” said Graetz, one of the curators of the collection. “A lot of exhibits have a number of Highwaymen paintings. This is a long-term display. It’s something the public can come and see.”
And the public has been coming. One recent Saturday, Tallahassee natives Laura Davis and Ryan Webster stood transfixed in front of the wall of framed landscapes.
The self-taught and self-mentoring Highwaymen created a body of work of thousands of paintings, despite facing many racial and cultural barriers. Mostly from the Fort Pierce area, they painted their vivid landscapes, often on scraps of material scavenged from their construction jobs, and made a living selling them door-to-door to businesses and individuals throughout Florida from the mid-1950s through the 1980s. They also peddled their work from the trunks of their cars along the eastern coastal roads, hence the Highwaymen moniker.
The collection at the Tallahassee museum spans the work of Alfred Hair to Alfonso Moran, and includes the Newton brothers, Harold, Lemuel and Samuel, plus Carnell Smith’s egrets, swamps, Spanish moss and the Indian River.
Willie Daniels’ pink flamingos, swamp, water, grass and trees set against a beckoning dusk – gray at the bottom, orange-pink and hopeful at the top, and Robert Butler’s Hillsborough River.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Davis, who was drawn to the Rodney Demps painting that reminded her of 2004, when Florida was lashed by nature’s fury.
“I love the hurricane one,” she said.
Funded by the Museums of Florida History Foundation, the complete series is a result of collection and collaboration. Some of the works came from collectors, while others came from the artists themselves. Each year, one artist would load his paintings into his vehicle as in years gone by and drive to the museum in Tallahassee.
“We would talk to the artists and get an idea of which one was most representative of their work,” Graetz said. That work would be added to the permanent collection.
For Mary Ann Carroll, that work celebrates the Royal Poinciana, the second painting added to the collection. Carroll, who was first introduced to painting as a 9-year-old watching Harold Newton, is the only woman among the Highwaymen.
“It means a lot to me. It’s something that was never dreamed of when we started,” said Carroll. At 72, Carroll still paints and also pastors a church in her hometown of Fort Pierce – the birthplace of the Highwaymen movement.
“It’s blessing from God,” Carroll said. “It didn’t have to happen. I am always grateful. It didn’t dawn on us how important this would be in the state of Florida history.”
For the Highwaymen, the paintings are only part of the attraction. Just as engaging are their personal stories of triumph and tragedy – Alfred Hair, the acknowledged creator of the phenomenon that became the Highwaymen, was shot and killed in 1970 at age 29.
Art allowed Carroll, a single mother, to raise seven children on her own.
“Women did not do some of the things I did for survival,” said Carroll, who is one of 18 surviving Highwaymen artists. “It was just what I did. I enjoyed it and still do.”
The stories and paintings are captured in a 62-page catalogue, “Florida Highwaymen: A Museum’s Collection,” on sale in the museum’s gift shop.
The stories also come alive on Wednesdays and Fridays when museum volunteer Peter Jefferson offers visitors a tour of the collection. Jefferson, an 84-year-old retired architect, takes visitors through his first encounter with the Highwaymen paintings at thrift stores and yard sales and wraps those stories with the personal narratives of the artists.
“It’s a wonderful story,” said Jefferson, who revels in introducing young museum visitors to this largely underappreciated piece of Florida’s culture and history.
“When I get young students I try to get them focused,” he said. “Many black people haven’t heard of the Highwaymen.”
When you go…
The Museum of Florida History
500 S. Bronough St., Tallahassee
Admission is free
The museum is a portal to discovering the state’s the long and diverse past. In addition to the Highwaymen exhibit, the museum also features “Forever Changed: La Florida 1513 to 1821,” an intimate look at the Spanish encounters with the Native American people who inhabited the state. The museum is within walking distance of the Old State Capitol and downtown restaurants.