The Highwaymen: Art Devoid of Affectations

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.

10 thoughts on “The Highwaymen: Art Devoid of Affectations

  1. Will S. says:

    Reblogged this on Will S.' Sunny Side Blog and commented:
    Interesting and thoughtful post, Elspeth!

    I think making art to pay the bills is perfectly legitimate; frankly, it’s why much art was made in the past, which somehow we’ve lost sight of. Good for them in making inspiring, commercial art. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Bike Bubba says:

    We might note that those who do various arts–baking, sewing, whatever–for their own enjoyment or purposes, they’re doing the same thing, and we might, per places like Proverbs 31, note that this is a God-given blessing to create something of beauty.

    I’d hang some of those in my house if I had one of them–whether original or reprint.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Will S. says:

    @ Bike Bubba: That’s a good point, and just as one doesn’t have to be an award-winning chef to be creating something worthwhile in the kitchen, so too does one not need to be the most acclaimed of painters, etc. Anyone doing their best, and creating things of beauty and quality, enjoyed and appreciated by others, are honouring God with their talents, from the most highly talented down to the more modestly talented. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bike Bubba says:

    Another thing to be noted–something I do routinely when discussing sewing with Mrs. Bubba–is to remember that when we are creating things for ourselves, we are often less likely to cheapen all the components–sugar to corn syrup, butter to oil, cotton or wool to polyester, etc.. It’s a good response to the comment from some “but you can get just as good at Wal-Mart for less time and money”, and far more printable and acceptable than the quaint country phrase I’m often tempted to use. :^)

    Plus, it can be customized to what you really want, instead of being “least common denominator”.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. MK says:

    Our secular culture has really hurt this kind of art business IMO. Probably started with the Puritans FAIK. Our culture now has nothing but nature having true gravitas, and for hat I look out my window. If I knew any local artists who did deep religious art (including sculpture) I would buy and hang it. I’ve even thought about doing it myself for my own walls. But I don’t hang stuff on my walls unless it’s saying something deep or eternal.

    I remember reading the book Red Square He noticed artists who were making white pencil portraits on black paper, passing them as gifts. The courage we have at birth becomes hoarded, shriveled, blown away. Year after year, we become more alone. Yet, holding Irina’s hand, for this moment, for this night, Arkady felt that he could swing the world. A piece of paper was pushed into his other hand. Look at this face, it was familiar, it was the one he was born with.

    Now that is something worth owning; gotta be real, and local art is one of the few things left in our modern age. Historical religious music or religious liturgy done local and done well, also works. Nobody wants to get married in an strip mall for the same reason, but at least it is real and it’s mine. Maybe I’m just getting old. In my mind :-).

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Elspeth says:

    @ MK:

    You have a point about our culture hurting not only real art -yeah, I said it- but an appreciation for true beauty. Nature is indeed the last bastion unless we look backwards in time.

    It’s a shame, really.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. hearthie says:

    Not allowed to make or live in real beauty unless you are very rich. It’s not quite done. It’s … too much ? for most people.

    Why? It touches the heart, and pierces the godless lie that so many want to live in.


  8. Krysta says:

    How interesting! I do think it’s perfectly legitimate to make art for money. A lot of people dream of making money by doing something they love, right? And even artists we consider “geniuses” or at least talented were doing stuff for cash, too. Stephen Crane, for instance, constantly found himself distracted from what he wanted to do because he needed money to live–at least from what I’ve read. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. We all need to eat!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Elspeth says:

    A lot of people dream of making money by doing something they love, right? And even artists we consider “geniuses” or at least talented were doing stuff for cash, too. Stephen Crane, for instance, constantly found himself distracted from what he wanted to do because he needed money to live–at least from what I’ve read. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. We all need to eat!

    Yes! I completely agree.

    Liked by 1 person

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