The Civil Rights Movement
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Paving Over Paradise
During the mid-1950s, 25 young African-American men and one woman challenged racism and inequality by making their livings as independent artists. With their dreamlike scenes of Florida’s sub-tropical beauty, the Florida Highwaymen have emerged, seven decades later, as one of the most talked about American art movements of the 20th century. Bold, vivid and vibrant, their majestic works not only depict a Florida lost in time, but a story of determination and soul, and a testament to the enduring struggle for civil rights and freedom.
Comparisons may be drawn between the Highwaymen and other artist groups that worked within the tradition of landscape painting. The most striking parallels can be made with the Hudson River School, a group of American artists active throughout the mid-19th century who painted sublime landscapes of the Hudson River Valley and surrounding areas. The California Impressionists of the early 1900s and the Group of Seven, a group of Canadian artists active throughout the early 20th century who painted rural Canadian landscapes in search of a national, artistic identity.
Alfred Hair Harold Newton Al Black James Gibson Mary Ann Carroll
They were brave, undaunted and believed in themselves. They painted with urgency and passion. They challenged both social and artistic convention. They used construction materials, wallboard for canvas and window molding for frames. They sold directly to customers, as no gallery would display artwork by blacks. Lack of formal training freed them from traditional methods.
The original core members of the Highwaymen were Harold Newton, Roy McLendon Sr., Alfred Hair, James Gibson, Livingston Roberts, Mary Ann Carroll, Sam Newton, Willie Daniels and Al Black.
In 2004, 50 years from their beginnings, 26 Highwaymen artists were named and inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame , joining Tennessee Williams, Ray Charles and Ernest Hemingway.
Make no mistake that the artistic presence of their alla prima impressionism and raw beauty of their depictions of a primordial Florida will pass the test of time. Nor too, should we fail to recognize that no one other group of artists has created such a massive body of work over such an extended period of time.
We should embrace that the Florida Highwaymen are a metaphor for the personal struggles and the societal turmoil of the mid 1950s. Underlying the serene almost soothing beauty of their creations is a doorway to more difficult discussions.
At first blush there is tranquility and serenity, but, as has been said before, still waters run deep and so too does the saga of the Florida Highwaymen. Indeed, The Highwaymen are a great unrivalled story of American history, African-American history and American Art and a quest for the American Dream.
Repatriate this spectacular Florida Highwaymen Collection.
The Collection would make a worthy and notable asset for any Corporation, Institution, Foundation, Charity, Environmentally Aware Organization or Museum wanting to make an indelible mark on American History and Culture.
Alfred Hair was much more than a talented artist, he's considered to be the creative and driving force behind the group of aspiring young black Floridian artists. Determined to be a millionaire by the time he was 30, Hair changed artistic parameters, devising fast painting methods, using construction wallboard for his canvases and hiring an "on the road" sales force. Others followed, drawn by his charisma, energy and style, he was a born entrepreneur. Devastatingly, he and his visions tragically crashed to a sudden end when Hair was shot dead by a jealous man in a barroom on Aug. 9, 1970; he was just 29.
The original "Highwayman", Harold Newton began painting landscapes in 1954 after famed Florida artist A.E. "Bean" Backus encouraged him to paint landscapes rather than the religious scenes on velvet he had been doing. Soon, Harold's talent was shining through as he created works that rivalled or surpassed those of Backus himself. A loner, he travelled extensively across the state marketing his art, but the group that was banding together in Fort Pierce looked up to him, his abilities and his art. Considered the most gifted and talented artist in the group, he was older and became a mentor to the early members. In 1994, he passed away from a stroke, a year before the group were given the name Highwaymen.
Mary Ann Carroll (seen here with R.A. Roy Mclendon and James Gibson) is the sole "Highwaywoman", but she is also a true renaissance woman. Her creative talents enabled her raise seven children on her own. Brave and determined, she put her faith in God and in her painting abilities. At 16 she met Harold Newton, attracted by his flame painted car. He taught her to mix paint, by 18 she had sold her first painting. It was 1958 and racism was rampant in the south and in Fort Pierce, hometown of the Highwaymen. Black women were not considered to be entrepreneurs or artists, bravely she was both as well as a pastor and gospel singer, carpenter and plumber. She saw things differently on the canvas as well: Vivid colors and impressionistic scenes separate her style from other group members. She practices what she preaches, "A winner never quits and a quitter never wins." Her life has lessons for us all.
In 1995, Florida journalist Jeff Klinkenburg wrote of a newly "found" group of African-American artists. Shortly afterwards, I stumbled across their iconic art and intriguing story. As a Canadian, I was struck by their similarity to our Group of Seven artists. But their story was more compelling and romantic. Even so, and even though they had been painting for 45 years, they were essentially still unknown. It was an improbable story that could only have unfolded in the troubled and challenging 1950s. I was captivated, and for the next 10 years was immersed in their saga and building a collection. Then one day I stopped, and asked myself, why was I, a Canadian involved?!
Not being American, I had a different objectivity and perspective of the Highwaymen. I sensed they were significant to American culture and history. But theirs was a story that was not getting out. Why was that? Could it be racism, elitism? I decided to get involved and commit to a mission of getting the Highwaymen – a group still barely known in their native Florida -- known nationally. The collection became an educational tool, first exhibited in Florida and then off to Washington D.C. There Florida House, an Embassy for the state, partnered with me to exhibit the collection from 2008 to 2017, they arranged for Congressmen and Senators to showcase Highwaymen art in their offices. In 2011 Howard University held an exhibit and in that same year Mary Ann Carroll met Michelle Obama at the First Lady's Luncheon and presented her a painting. A truly magical day for her, and for me too, and something that bonds us closely to this day.
In 2015, my efforts with the Highwaymen came to the attention of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman and his wife Vicki. They chose to bring the collection to Ottawa for the U.S. Embassy’s 2016 Black History events. Mary Ann Carroll came up from Florida to a cold Ottawa February and truly became a "rock star". The collection continued on exhibit in Montreal, Windsor (across from Detroit and sight of the Underground Railroad Monument), and Toronto, retracing destinations of the Underground Railroad. The time is right for this collection to be repatriated to the United States, and for Americans to take ownership of this legacy collection and this essential and iconic part of American history and culture. In so many ways the Highwaymen's journey has only just begun.
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