The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams, by Gary Munroe. Published in 2009. Hardcover, 160 pages.
Despite being officially 160 pages, The Highwaymen Murals is only 27 pages of text, all the author needs to detail the turbulent life of unlikely artist Al Black. The remaining 133 pages are color photos of the murals Black painted throughout the two prisons where he served time in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s for drug possession and fraud. The particulars of this book must necessarily be preceded with a short introduction to the Florida Highwaymen. Gary Munroe’s book opens with this paragraph:
In 1960, in Ft. Pierce, Florida, a group of young African-American men virtually stumbled into lucrative careers as landscape painters. These men had no schooling, nor were they part of any art movement. At night, because they had no studios, they painted feverishly in their own backyards, often with barbecues flaming and beers flowing. By day they would peddle these scenic paintings up and down the Atlantic coast. Actually, they did not care that much about art, and they cared even less about the recognition that they might receive as artists. What did motivate them was basic to their very survival- financial gain.
That’s the short version of the story of the artists known as the Florida Highwaymen (the group did include one woman, however). This book is the third of several books that author Gary Munroe has written about the artists. His first book, published in 2001, catapulted these men, their story, and their contribution to the arts into the spotlight when the New York Times devoted a lengthy piece to them in its Lively Arts section:
Wind-bent palm trees, sand, surf, billowing clouds and vivid sunsets were the essentials of Florida landscape painting that emerged following World War II. Occasionally moss-draped cypress trees in the still water of a marsh presented a more contemplative view, while a royal poinciana in full, flaming red bloom or a storm-tossed shore provided dramatic relief.
From the late 1950’s into the early 80’s these colorful landscapes were ubiquitous decorations in Florida homes, offices, restaurants and motel rooms. They shaped the state’s popular image as much as oranges and alligators.
Little known, however, is that such paintings were largely the creations of a loose-knit group of self-taught, African-American artists from what was called Blacktown in the little east coast city of Fort Pierce, about 55 miles north of Miami, said Gary Monroe, professor of visual arts at Daytona Beach Community College. (The writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston died in poverty in Fort Pierce in 1960.)
Munroe’s first books highlighted the classical, more artistically pure work of Alfred Hair and Harold Newton, the first highwaymen. During his research and travels he discovered the story and prison murals of Al Black, and couldn’t rest until he had written this book which tells Black’s story. He recounts his rise, fall and redemptive work painting murals on prison walls which injected a dose of hope into the life of his fellow inmates and brightness into the shifts of the correctional employees who spent their days and nights supervising their charges.
Al Black’s Concrete Dreams explains how Black, who initially didn’t paint at all, went from the smooth talking, silver-tongued salesman for the Florida Highwaymen, to becoming a celebrated artist in his own right.
Because the Florida Highwaymen painted as much for volume as aesthetic value, Black often stacked his cars full of paintings that were not completely dry. He is actually quoted as saying he “never sold a painting that wasn’t wet”. When he arrived at office complexes, banks, hotels, medical facilities and other places to sell the paintings, he’d often find that the paintings had been smudged or damaged in transit. As a result, he learned to carry art supplies with him to fix the paintings while he was on the road.
He was never much interested in painting because he was making a handsome living selling the paintings of the Highwaymen. Over time however, he became quite skilled. He did paint on occasion, and on occasion passed off unsigned works by other artists as his own work.
Over time his fast-talking, risk-taking, high-life way of living cost him everything, including his freedom. During the resurrected interest in the Highwaymen’s art, the warden of the Central Florida prison where he was incarcerated recognized his name, and that was the beginning of Black’s return to art and the celebrated prison murals which adorn the walls of two Florida state prisons. Most are not available for public viewing except in this book, but a couple were published in Florida newspapers. This is one example (photo credit):
Black’s ascendancy, free fall from grace, and re-emergence from the ashes is a fascinating tale. What I enjoyed more than the short biography however, was the art, so I am glad that this book was composed chiefly of Al Black’s artwork.
As for how the Highwaymen art lost its grip on the imagination of Floridians old and new, the answer is actually pretty simple. As the Florida landscape changed, bulldozed and covered with more concrete and overrun with more cars, the idyllic natural beauty that drew the likes Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone to the Sunshine State gave way to Mickey Mouse and mass marketed tourism efforts. The magic captured by the Highwaymen paintings was not within the imaginative reach of new generations of Florida residents and visitors. Their time had come and gone.
four out of five stars.