Highwaymen paintings on display at art museum

VERO BEACH — It is fitting that the Vero Beach Museum of Art is featuring 74 glowing Highwaymen landscape paintings in the torrid summer months, when the Poinciana trees and jasmine are in bloom, the relative humidity is high and folks who make Florida their home year-round are ready to be reminded of why they moved here.

Entering the Holmes Gallery, the Highwaymen’s skies are what capture the eye first. Filled with billowing clouds, they preside over everything below: a windswept palm, a majestic ocean wave, a royal Poinciana decked in scarlet.

Florida never looked so good.

The Highwaymen were a unique product of Florida: a group of African- American men and one woman who made their living as artists in the Jim Crow South.

Focusing on a select group of the legendary local painters, “Along the Road: Paintings of the Highwaymen” is especially rich in works by the two of the earliest members of the group, Harold Newton and Al Hair.

Newton is said to have been the most prolific artist of the group, and the 44 works by him on display reflect that.

Hair is represented by 16 paintings.

Rounding out the show are works by Al Black, George Buckner, Willie Daniels, R.A. McLendon, Sam Newton and Livingston Roberts.

“We made an effort to emphasize the earlier Highwaymen in this show, especially Newton and Hair,” said Museum Curator Jay Williams. “We didn’t intend, and didn’t set out to do a survey show of all the 26 Highwaymen, or even the original eight.”

He added that the museum mounted a Highwaymen survey show in 2003.

Williams didn’t have to look far to fill the gallery. Lenders to the exhibition include beachside residents Roger and Pattama Lightle. Williams said that Roger Lightle was the first person he talked to about a Highwayman show.

“He’s a savvy collector who has concentrated on Newton and Hair,” said Williams. “His collection served as the core to build the show around.”

“Along the Road” combines works from local collectors and one major out of town collection, Williams said.

Other local lenders include museum of art patrons Pam and Jim Huff, Gloria Bumsted and Glenn and Emily Tremml.

Three of the paintings in the show are from the museum’s permanent collection, the gift of former beachside residents Nancy Morgan and her husband, the late Paul S. Morgan.

Historian and author Gary Monroe lectured in Vero at the June 28 opening of the exhibit. A documentary photographer and professor of visual art at Daytona Beach Community College, Monroe wrote the seminal 2001 book, “The Highwaymen: Florida’s African American Landscape Painters.”

Monroe maintains that the Highwaymen’s art was painted with a white, middle-class audience in mind: newcomers to Florida who expected the picture-perfect paradise they were promised when they bought property here. Which, in the 1950s and ‘60s, might have been sight unseen.

The saga as outlined in his book began in the 1950s with two young men: Alfred Hair, who lived in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Fort Pierce, and Harold Newton of Gifford.

Hair learned to paint under the auspices of Fort Pierce landscape painter A.E. “Bean” Backus; Newton was a painter of religious scenes prior to meeting Backus.

While he did not receive formal lessons from the older artist, Monroe said Backus “opened his heart and his studio” to Newton, who thereafter dedicated himself to landscape painting.

Hair and Newton soon joined forces with the idea of selling their paintings to make money.

“Harold Newton’s goal was to pay bills – he was the father of 13 children,” Monroe told his museum audience. “Alfred Hair’s goal was to be a millionaire by age 35.”

Hair is credited with developing a successful system for selling pictures.

First, the paintings were affordable. A sofa-sized two by four-foot painting sold for $35, and smaller paintings went for as little as $10.

The artists kept the cost of production down by painting on Upson board, a cheap and plentiful construction material, and mounting their paintings in frames made from crown molding.

Working in oil, the artists typically painted quickly; the fastest among them could complete a detailed landscape in minutes. The idealized scenes were not painted on site from nature, but from the painters’ imaginations.

Their studios were utility rooms and backyards.

Working all night, the artists could produce 10 or 20 paintings for sale, still wet, the following day, according to Monroe.

No one knows how many paintings the group produced during the height of the Highwaymen’s production, which spanned the late 1950s to the mid-80s.

Estimates range from 125,000 to 250,000 individual works, Monroe said.

The group’s suave sales approach was polite and persistent, intentionally nonthreatening in an era of racial divide.

The designated salesman – early on it was Hair, and soon thereafter, Al Black – wore a suit and tie, a formal touch that in combination with their idyllic wares, made the “young, up-beat, well-spoken artists” irresistible to the people who flocked to Florida in the decades following World War II, said Monroe.

Hair was a victim of gun violence in 1970. His death at age 29 dealt a blow to the group, which by then comprised eight artists.

Hair “was the glue that held the painters together,” Monroe said.

From that time the artists carried on individually. Their number swelled to 26 active painters between 1971 and 1986.

By the mid-1980s the demand for Highwaymen paintings had fallen so sharply that only the core group of eight continued to paint.

Monroe suggests several factors for the decline, including changing taste, market saturation and the rise of theme-park attractions that vied for the consumer’s dollar.

Public interest picked up in the mid-90s when the artists were rediscovered by, among others, Sebring art dealer Jim Fitch, who dubbed the nameless and loosely organized group “The Highwaymen” for the artists’ technique of taking their works on the road for sale.

Monroe’s 2001 book codified the number of Highwaymen at 26 members.

As a result of his nomination, the group was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.

The Highwaymen’s story has been told in The New York Times and in features on PBSTV and NPR.

The long-overdue recognition fueled a new market for vintage Highwaymen paintings, and collectors from around the country began to drive up prices.

Today the most desirable of those early works can sell for thousands of dollars.

Monroe compared the effect of The Highwaymen on American landscape painting to that of the mid-19th century Hudson River School.

The latter helped settle the West by depicting its natural beauty and abundant resources to would-be settlers.

The Highwaymen painted pristine views of Florida not to sell the state as a destination, but to fulfill homesteaders’ preconceived visions of it.

Newcomers to Florida “found their own narratives to go with these images,” Monroe said.

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