Thursday, October 22, 2009

Long Live The Highwaymen

Off-Season, Ken McAlpine's catalog (well, travelogue) of how towns along the east coast restore their natural order after tourist season concludes, revisits a fascinating piece of rural, racial and artistic history. Visiting Don George, a biologist and environmental planner for the U.S. Air Force, at his home in Sharpes, Florida, McAlpine observes:

"[t]he walls are covered with paintings. His closets are stacked with them, too. The paintings are oils. With the exceptions of a few imaginative twists, they all depict one of three basic scenes: waves breaking on a beach, a Florida swamp out of a which rises a stately mossy tree, or a riverbank. The scenes are idyllic: sunrises, empty beaches, frothing breakers, wind-whipped palms, and quiet swamps.

Sage collectors like Don are well versed in the work of the Highwaymen, a loose association of twenty-five black men and one woman who, in the late 1950's, painted images of a very real Florida dream, slung the still wet paintings into the backs of their cars, and traveled the Florida coast peddling the paintings to restaurants, offices, motels, and banks. Curtis Arnett, Al "Blood" Black, Mary Ann Carroll, Alfred Hair, Harold Newman, and Livingston "Castro" Roberts were not finicky artisans. They painted fast and sold hard to avoid picking oranges for two dollars a day. They painted on Upson board, a product familiar to roofers, and framed the paintings with crown molding, a product familiar to anyone who has ever looked up at a ceiling. They painted so fast, they may have forgotten what they were painting. Don has one Highwaymen painting that he aptly describes as the 'ocean breaking in a swamp scene.' "

Who knew? In the early 1990's, the Highwaymen were rediscovered by art enthusiast and collector Jim Fitch, who declared them folk artists. This predictably shot up the market value of the paintings and allowed the artists to continue working. Mary Ann Caroll is one. The lone woman in the group, Caroll, in a 1998 interview while taking stock of her oeuvre, nicely sums up the transcendence of art: "I always loved the dead trees and the density of the wood. It's just that I can't swim. So I paint." As a testament to both the longevity of interest in the paintings' and the speed at which the Highwaymen worked, there are an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 in circulation.

Check out this trailer to the 2008 PBS documentary, "The Highwaymen: Legends of the Road." Viewing session, anyone?

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At November 11, 2009 at 6:56 PM , Anonymous meredith said...

viewing session, yes please.


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