Currently on view:
*The event is free and open to the public*
In rural southeast coastal Florida, in the late 1950s and 1960s, during the time when the Civil Rights Movement began to seriously challenge Jim Crow laws, a grassroots art phenomena occurred that had no precedent, and it left an unimaginable trove of artwork–perhaps a quarter million oil paintings made by young self-taught African American artists. They were nameless during their two decades of creative tenure, only to be dubbed The Highwaymen fifteen years later. Their paintings transcend the palm trees, clear blue skies, and glistening surf that they describe with vigor; they were the embodiment of a prosperous land and new frontier where dreams were sure to come true for post war families. They were and remain American images, painted by the unlikeliest of American artists who were likely destined to pick oranges in the groves nearby their homes. Instead, they created the visual legacy of modern Florida as the place to realize the American dream.
The casual association of these painters came together quickly then, establishing a de facto cottage industry in which twenty-six artists painted and sold non-stop from 1960 until 1980. Then attention began to focus on the artists’ backstory and their artwork–the paintings began surfacing from attics and yard sales. Gary Monroe wrote The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters, and the book sparked a cultural phenomenon when it was released in 2001. Soon the oeuvre was rediscovered and the paintings became seen as cultural milestone and art treasure that these painters had given to our state and to our country.
The Highwaymen became artists by default, through their process of fast-painting. Their facile method yielded fresher and more aesthetically relevant imagery that had been the standard. Highwaymen’s images were sketchy and suggestive and, as such, compelled viewers to complete them in their own minds’ eyes. The paintings were banners proclaiming one’s arrival to Florida. They hung like trophies in homes and offices and found their way around the country, where people became co-artists with as they lent their own narratives to the furtive imagery.
Now Highwaymen paintings are in museums across the country, in the White House and in the Florida Governor’s mansion. Now the artists are heralded in the Sunshine State, around the nation and as far away as Europe. In 2004, based on Gary Monroe’s nomination, the Highwaymen were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, a division of the Department of State.