We recently went to a museum to tour a limited run exhibit of art by the Florida Highwaymen. I’ve written a little about them before. They were unique, unconventional and successful for a time despite being uninterested in art for art’s sake. These men –and one woman- seemed to be void of any desire to make a name for themselves. They were in the thing to make rent. They even allowed their commissioned salesman, a fast talker from the neighborhood, to occasionally sign his name on their work if it would facilitate a sale or fetch a better price.
As we toured the exhibit I overheard two women discussing the fact that most of these men were not serious, studied artists. It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered this analysis of the Highway men; this implication they weren’t genuine artists. They painted and sold for volume, rather than for a deep love of their craft. This is undoubtedly true, but I view that as a testament to their accomplishment rather than a detraction from it.
Rather than pining for some imaginary life that they thought they deserved, they made hay while the sun shone. Are y’all familiar with that colloquialism? It’s equivalent to striking while the iron is hot, which perfectly encapsulates the trajectory of The Highwaymen. Most possessed natural artistic aptitude, but this was a time when it was particularly difficult for men of their ethnic and socioeconomic background to make a good living. Art school was not a priority for most of them, although a well-regarded local artist guided and heavily influenced their early work.
The cool thing about the these guys, besides the fact that they were able to make a decent living selling paintings that they churned out by firelight while drinking beer in Alfred Hair’s backyard, was their novel interpretation Florida’s natural beauty. They may not have been serious about art for art’s sake, but they captured Florida’s Poinciana trees, wild back country, and vibrant evening sunsets in vivid, Technicolor detail.
Most of the painting were produced on Upson board rather than canvas, because it was cheaper to buy in bulk and it got the job done. Their art sold because of its authenticity, quality, and lack of affectation. These men painted Florida as they saw it around them every day. What they lacked in artistic passion, they made up for with a passion for their subject matter.
Perhaps my roots are showing, but everything about the way this art was developed, presented, and marketed speaks to me. It’s the way I understand earthiness and authenticity. I love The David, The Mona Lisa and The Banjo Lesson as much as any other person who appreciates art and beauty. This art, which depicts my home, by artists who share the same roots and appreciation of the uniqueness that is this place, affects me in a more visceral way.
Their story magnifies rather than diminishes their legacy. At least, that’s the way I see it.