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TB History Center Showcases Florida Highwaymen Art

Back in the 1950s and '60s, a group of African-Americans, known as the Highwaymen, sold Florida landscape paintings to locals and tourists on the side of the road. The paintings were sold for only a few bucks at the time but after the '90s, their value soared. The Tampa Bay History Center is showcasing these prized paintings.

Credit Tampa Bay History Center
Tampa Bay History Center
Artist: Harold Newton

The plain white walls are splashed with the hues of natural Florida; with flamboyant colors itching to burst in a kaleidoscope of blazing orange sunsets, serene blue waters and glowing green palm trees that seem to fill the room with an imaginary salty breeze.

The Highwaymen exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center, 'Against All Odds' features 31 paintings mostly of the Florida's outdoors as it looked in the 1950s and '60s-- the time when these pieces were painted.

The 26 African American artists who put the brushes to canvases were collectively known as the Highwaymen.

"They get the name Highwaymen because they sold a lot of their pieces literally on the side of the roads to tourists and locals who were interested in their artwork," Tampa Bay History Center curator Rodney Kite-Powell said.

"Because of segregation at the time, they couldn’t sell their art in white galleries. They had to really go out and bring their art literally to the people," he said.

Many of these paintings were sold to banks, motels, and doctors' offices.

"A lot of these paintings were painted for the tourist market and so people who live up north want to have a nice Florida piece with a palm tree in it that’s why it is a pretty prominent feature in these paintings," Kite-Powell said.  That's why the history center has a whole wall dedicated to those palm trees.

Art was a way for the highwaymen to escape laborious factory or field work but art still wasn't an easy way out. The paintings at the time only sold for about $25-$35 a piece.

"One of the things that they were taught was speed, because again they didn’t sell these pieces for very much. They couldn’t sell because nobody was going to buy one piece of art for $500 so they had to sell a hundred pieces of art for five dollars to get the same thing," Kite-Powell said. "So you had to produce and so some of these guys were able to paint these pieces in almost a matter of minutes, certainly less than an hour."

Though all the Highwaymen paintings are of landscapes, not all of them are the same.

"Being so many of them, inherently some are going to be a little bit better than others at their chosen craft. Some of them are incredibly detailed, there are a couple of scenes that include people and those are of a higher caliber," said Kite-Powell. "Overall you can see that it’s an interesting mix of folkart technique but with also fine art aesthetic mixed in."

One of the Highwaymen who managed to paint with finer details was Robert Butler.

"Butler was really transcendent of the folk art into a more of a fine artist and you can just see the level of detail in his art, the subject matter in his art, it’s not just the landscape, he actually goes back and paints a scene from the past," Kite-Powell said.

Butler used research to get the detail of the clothing, the ship and the buildings.

One of Robert Butler's pieces in the exhibit is different in more ways than one. The piece is a part of the history center's own collection and it was completed recently in 2013 as a part of a local fundraiser for a non-profit organization in Tampa's Sulphur Springs neighborhood.

"They had Mr. Butler come to their site along the Hillsborough River to paint what he thought the landscape and the little home that was originally there would have looked like back when the home was relatively new in the 1920's and so we have really a fantastic Hillsborough River scene with a home on the banks of the river."

That was the last painting Robert Butler did. He died March 2014.

Though they sold for very little back then, Highwaymen art is worth thousands of dollars today.

Through a museum's standpoint, art isn't all about money, Kite-Powell said.

"It isn’t about the monetary value, it’s about the reaction that you have to it," he said. "You find a piece that you like and it’s $3 but it really touches you and it talks to you then, you should get it.  It doesn’t matter if it’s ever going to be worth more than those $3 as long as to you, you get something out of it."

The Highwaymen exhibit Against All Odds is on display through August 17.

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