It started with a description on a tin of coffee: "It pairs the prismatic glory of a Florida Highwaymen painting with the integrated restraint of an Eames chair, and still tastes good with ham". I'd never heard the phrase "Florida Highwaymen", but luckily my breakfast companion was able to inform me of the fascinating history of this remarkable group of painters...For the full story, NPR is a great place to start, with The Highwaymen: Speed-Painting In The Sunshine State and All Things Considered's The Landscape Art Legacy Of Florida's Highwaymen. In short, a young aspiring artist named Alfred Hair was taught by legendary Florida landscape painter A.E. "Beanie" Backus. This was the 1960s and Jim Crow segregation laws were heavily enforced in Florida, but Backus' studio was open to all, including his African-American protegé. Hair soon developed a speed-painting technique which allowed him to rapidly crank out landscape paintings. He taught others, who taught others, creating a (sometimes highly competitive) network of painters known as the Florida Highwaymen. They would paint all night and then sell their paintings by the side of the road during the day (segregation laws eliminated their access to galleries, of course). The paintings- done on more affordable drywall canvases- usually sold for $20 each, far more than they would be able to make at the traditional agricultural jobs available in the area.
Tragically, Hair was gunned down in 1970, and the murder of the original Highwayman shook the group deeply. Many stopped painting, but several have kept it up, including Highwaywoman Mary Ann Carroll, as well as painting salesman-turned-painter Al Black. He was incarcerated for 12 years, but according to NPR, "When it was discovered he was a Highwayman, Black was given unprecedented permission to paint murals throughout state correctional facilities...where they remain to this day." Highwaymen paintings can now fetch thousands of dollars, though sadly, that rarely helps the 18 surviving artists. It is particularly satisfying to note, however, that paintings created under the oppression of segregation laws now hang in the White House.
(Images: 1. A Step Back In Time Antiques, 2. Boston.com, from Gary Monroe's book The Highwaymen, Florida's African-American Lanscape Painters, 3. By Samuel Newton via TC Palm, 4. Jacques De Beaufort from The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters, 5. By Samuel Newton via Florida Art)