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Living Color: The Art of the Florida Highwaymen

Living Color: The Art of the Florida Highwaymen – On Display through May 10th at the Orlando Museum of Art



History of the Florida Highwaymen


The Florida Highwaymen, a group of African American artists made distinctive paintings of Florida’s natural environment. Working in and around the Fort Pierce area beginning in the 1950s, these self-taught artists depicted the state’s scenic coastline and wild backcountry. They often dazzled in combinations of color and tone. Brilliant tropical sunsets, windblown palms, towering sunlit clouds, and blooming Poinciana trees are among the many subjects that have become iconic images of Florida in part because of the paintings that the Highwaymen created. In the state’s postwar boom years their paintings found an enthusiastic audience among a growing population of new residents and visitors. Unrecognized by the region’s art establishment of galleries and museums, the Highwaymen by necessity catered directly to their patrons. They sold their paintings door-to-door along such thoroughfares as Route 1. This practice earned them the name “Highwaymen”.


Art by Florida Highwaymen
The popularity of Highwaymen paintings waned in the 1980s. An ever-increasing population reimagined the vision of Florida. Then in the mid-1990s a new generation of collectors, with fresh eyes, rediscovered the paintings and began to assemble significant collections. These collectors saw the art of the Highwaymen as an important artistic legacy. Together with several writers, scholars, and enthusiasts began the process of establishing the historical context and reevaluation of their work. Books and articles followed, bringing a new level of recognition for the achievements of these artists and, with that, growing popular acclaim. The contribution of the Highwaymen to the cultural life of Florida was formally recognized in 2004. The group of 26 artists was then inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.


Art by Florida Highwaymen


The Exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art


Living Color: The Art of the Highwaymen brings together 100 paintings by a core group of the Highwaymen including Al Black, Mary Ann Carroll, Willie Daniels, Johnny Daniels, James Gibson, Alfred Hair, Roy McLendon, Harold Newton, Sam Newton, Willie Reagan, and also Livingston Roberts. Focusing on work produced from the 1950s to the 1980s, the exhibition is an in-depth examination of the group’s initial period of success when their groundbreaking style of fast painting was being developed. Fast painting is a hallmark and essential innovation of the Highwaymen. Facing limitations imposed by the racial prejudice of their time, they had little or no access to formal training or to conventional art markets. To overcome these obstacles, they produced large numbers of works that could be sold at very affordable prices. Some estimates of the group’s overall production during their heyday exceed 200,000 paintings. Certain artists created dozens of paintings per day. Their creative response to the racism they confronted resulted in original artistic practice.


The exhibition brings special attention to two key artists, Harold Newton and Alfred Hair. It also presents extensive examples of their work. Newton also developed the means of reaching an audience through door-to-door sales. Newton was arguably the most formally accomplished of the group. He created paintings that are more naturalistic, richly detailed, and varied in subject matter than the work of the other artists. Many of the Highwaymen in fact aspired to the standards he set.


Art by Florida Highwaymen


Harold Newton and Alfred Hair – Florida Highwaymen


Alfred Hair was also a leader among the artists and a gifted innovator. He developed fast painting techniques that were so influential and enabled the success of the group’s enterprise. Hair’s paintings minimized descriptive detail and instead emphasized mood and atmosphere with broad tones of color and quick gestural brushwork. Clouds, trees, grasses, and also wildlife are suggested with a shorthand of rapid strokes of color applied with a brush or a palette knife loaded with paint. There is often a sense of frenetic energy in Hair’s paintings that gives them a life beyond what is simply represented in the picture. Other artists emulated his style and found his drive to produce and succeed inspiring. Many learned to paint from him as assistants or simply by watching him work while socializing in his backyard studio. Presenting this carefully selected body of works by a limited number of artists the exhibition seeks to provide a more nuanced understanding of the Highwaymen relationally and as individual artists.


Newton and Hair were primarily self-taught. However, their paintings are very much part of the lineage of American landscape painting that stretches back to the nineteenth century. They learned the basic tenets of landscape painting from the renowned Fort Pierce artist A.E. “Bean” Backus, who welcomed both artists into his studio. Backus freely shared his knowledge with them and in Hair’s case provided more formal lessons. It was primarily the examples of Backus’s paintings, though, that guided Newton, Hair, and eventually other Highwaymen in creating their own work. Studying his paintings, they readily adopted many of the elements of Backus’s compositions. Their subject matter but transformed his artistic formulas through their own practice and vision. As a result, the Highwaymen have become Florida’s most recognized cohort of regional artists.


Art by Florida Highwaymen


Orlando Museum of Art Exhibit


Drawn from five outstanding private collections, this exhibition also considers the role of collectors in preserving the legacy of these artists. They also are reviving popular interest in their works and their extraordinary life stories. Through interviews with these collectors, exhibition curator Gary Monroe explores questions about why this work is fascinating and what drives them to collect it with such evident passion. With insights gained from his interviews and the opportunity to carefully examine more than 1,000 paintings in these combined collections, Monroe’s selections for the exhibition offer viewers a critical understanding of the work. It is an opportunity to see some of the strongest examples of Highwaymen painting. You can also consider what the elements of their style express. In addition, you can see what their contribution is to the art of Florida.


The Orlando Museum of Art organizes the exhibition. It is also curated by Gary Monroe in collaboration with OMA curator Hansen Mulford. Monroe has been recognized as a leading scholar of the Highwaymen since the publication of his book, The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters (2001) which was instrumental in providing a contemporary understanding of their work. Monroe has also authored books on individual artists including Al Black, Mary Ann Carroll, and Harold Newton.


Want to learn even more about the Florida Highwaymen? Check it out here!


About the Orlando Museum of Art


Founded in 1924, and incorporated as a 501(c)(3) institution, the Orlando Museum of Art is a leading cultural institution in the region.


The purpose of the Orlando Museum of Art is to interpret and present the most compelling art for the public to experience and also positively affect people’s lives with innovative and inspiring education programs that will endure as a cultural legacy in Central Florida. The mission of the Orlando Museum of Art is to inspire creativity, passion, and intellectual curiosity by connecting people with art and new ideas.


Annually, the Museum presents 10-12 exhibitions on-site and 13 exhibitions off-site, award-winning art enrichment programs, unlimited gallery tours, teacher in-service training programs, video programs, distinguished lectures, art appreciation lectures, studio classes, lecture/luncheon programs, and also outreach services in its facility and throughout the community. The services benefit individuals, including visitors from all 67 counties in Florida, the other 49 states, and numerous foreign countries. The Museum’s staff, its Board of Trustees, and more than 700 volunteers, many of whom are part of its membership of 5,000 individuals implement the programs.


Hours and Ticket Prices




Adults: $15
Groups of 10 or more: $13
Seniors (65+): $8
College Students: $5 with a valid ID
Children Ages 4-17: $5
Active Duty Military: FREE with a valid ID
Military Veterans: FREE with a valid ID
Ages 3 and Under: FREE
Members: Members are always FREE!
Closed on major holidays.
Official website: www.omart.org
Contact: info@omart.org or 407.896.4231


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