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Arts / Culture

Sarasota Exhibit Showcases Artwork, Lives Of The Florida Highwaymen

A painting of a red Royal Poinciana on the Indian River by Mary Ann Carroll
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
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Royal Poinciana on the Indian River by artist Mary Ann Carroll

Beginning in the 1950’s, a group of Black artists known as the Highwaymen dedicated themselves to painting and selling images of Florida’s natural landscapes. Shut out of museums, their work was both a means of expression and a way for them to make a living in the segregated south.

Instead of settling for traditional labor jobs in the agricultural industry, the Florida Highwaymen found success selling their artwork to patrons from the trunks of their cars and going door-to-door to doctor’s offices, hotels, and businesses along Florida’s Atlantic coast. Making multiple paintings in one day enabled them to offer their work at affordable prices, about $25 to $35 each.

From the mid-1950s to 1970, the Highwaymen created an estimated 200,000 works which continue to resonate today.

A new exhibit at Marie Selby Gardens in Sarasota explore the artists’ works and lives in the time of segregation.

WUSF's Cathy Carter recently spoke with exhibit curator Radiah Lovette Harper about the legacy of the Florida Highwaymen.

Radiah, here in Florida, the term Florida Highwaymen has been in the lexicon for many years now. But you don't actually refer to this group of artists by that name.

Correct. I think of these artists as African American landscape painters from the Fort Pierce area and I'm hopeful that we will get to know the artworks, the paintings and the artists by their names rather than relying on a tagline, which was a tagline that they did not create for themselves. You know, having said that, they are known as Highwaymen. They've been exhibited for at least 25 years. The person who coined the phrase in 1995 was Jim Finch. I met him in 1996 so I could learn about these artists before I exhibited them at the Tampa Museum. When I was invited by Selby to guest curate, I of course knew that there have been multiple shows about these artists, and I didn't want to do another quote unquote Highwayman show. I didn't want to do another show that honored their colors, their landscape, their aesthetic. I wanted to do a show that looked at the context of their lives, that looked at African American history and that looked at them as Black people who started painting during segregation, and how that might have impacted what they painted, and how that certainly shaped who they were as human beings.

Rough Surf Crashing Ashore by artist Harold Newton
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Rough Surf Crashing Ashore by artist Harold Newton

Another unique perspective you bring to the show as a black woman yourself is, when we talk about the Florida Highwaymen, we don't often hear the story about a woman who influenced them. Can you tell us about her?

Yes, Mrs. Zanobia Grace Jefferson was an artist herself. And what I found when I was doing research on segregated Fort Pierce, I discovered that Mrs. Jefferson went to Fisk University, which is a very fine historically black college. So, she had to have a body of knowledge when she arrived in Fort Pierce to teach at Lincoln Park Academy. And then looking back, I learned that she was taught by Aaron Douglas. Any of you who know about the Harlem Renaissance know that Aaron Douglas was the premier muralist painter of the Harlem Renaissance. And so, she poured that information into black men, young high school men who were in her art class. And, you know, she deserves a lot of credit. And Black folks had it rough. And the time period that we're talking about is the KKK marching down the street. You know, we're talking about bombings and the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Black Power movement. All these things are happening and students were nurtured by Mrs. Jefferson, and when you read about black communities in the south during segregation, teachers went above and beyond classroom teaching to help students understand how to make it in this world.

Photo of African American woman
The exhibit's curator, Radiah Lovette Harper

Can we take a moment to speak about the art itself? Do you have any particular favorites?

Well, you know, I have to love all my children. I can't pick one or two. But I hope that listeners have an opportunity to come to Sarasota to see this exhibition, spend time in the galleries and look at how Mary Ann Carroll, who was the only woman in the group, how Mary Ann Carroll laid down her paint, they use oil paints, which are slow drying paints, and Mary Ann Carroll used a lot of thick paint and she loved the color orange. And for some people, the color palette is a surprise with these deep oranges and purples and pink skies, that for Floridians, they know these skies really exist because we've seen them. And Alfred Hair was very interested in the trees in Fort Pierce, he was very interested in the Royal Poinciana and stable palms and other trees. And his tree trunks and branches seem to be very curvilinear. And Harold Newton, who was a little bit older, considered himself a very serious painter. His strokes are slower, his canvases look at one subject- the ocean, and the detail is not in adding bits and bobs to the ocean, but in the color of the water and the strokes in the water and the waves in the water. And so those are three different points of view, right? Every artist has his or her own point of view. And I would like for people to get to know the artists the way we know you know Romare Bearden or the way we know Vincent Van Gogh. We know how the artists painted, and I think that these artists deserve that kind of attention.

So, what does this show tell us about the legacy of this group of artists?

The legacy for me goes back to Africa, the legacy for me goes back to the DNA of these artists who are born from ancestors who are artists. And so, these traditions of making work of telling stories, and we can see them as storytellers, the legacy is don't let anybody stop you just because they think they have the right to. And they wanted to be artists and they also wanted to sell. They made the choice of painting and selling artwork versus agricultural labor, versus picking fruits and vegetables for an income. But I know that there are a lot of paintings out there, which means that somebody is loving them somewhere. So, in that way, the legacy continues, the artwork is still being appreciated, and that's a form of legacy. Their place is very firmly locked into American history.

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