Atlantas much-missed Primitive Eye folk art gallery
was still operating, Sylvester Wells stopped by to introduce himself to
owner Olivia Thomason and show her some examples of his paintings along
with others by a group of his friends. They were mostly landscapes and
These paintings, recalls Ms. Thomason, a renowned and award-winning
artist, were remarkable for their representations of golden sunsets,
tranquil, blue waters and magnificently green foliage. But, what I recall
more than anything is the unrestrained use of color.
Sylvester Wells, who is not yet a household name in Atlanta, is also a
minister and a member of an assemblage of self-taught artists who became
known as The Highwaymen. During their heyday, this group of 25 men
and one woman painted the wind-bent palm trees, churning oceans, dramatic
sunsets and flaming red bloomed royal poincianas that once were omnipresent
in southern coastal homes, restaurants and motels, primarily during the
50s on up into the early 80s. A recent feature in The New
York Times credited The Highwaymen with shaping Floridas
popular image as much as oranges and alligators.
That The Highwaymen were genuinely self-taught is remarkable. That
they are all African-American is a reflection of their perseverance. As
with others similarly situated during the South of their time, a good education
and realistic prospects for a secure life werent exactly the norm
for Southern blacks. Through their realization that art was both a creative
outlet and a means of economic betterment, they paintednever in collaboration,
but rather as a club or fraternal orderusing oils applied with brushes,
knives and fingers to Upson boards and framed their paintings with crown
molding. Then, they hit the tourist highways of east Florida and the Georgia
coast marketing their paintings on roadside stands, sidewalks and from
the trunks of their cars.
After a lecture in Fort Lauderdale recently, I had a few moments to chat
with Gary Monroe, whose new book THE HIGHWAYMEN, (The University Press
of Florida, 2001), is the definitive academic and collectors authority
about theses artists and their works. Monroe revealed that estimates of
how many paintings were produced range from 50,000 to four times
that much. In light of these production numbers, one might think
the market would be saturated. Its not and the reasons are both sad
The Highwaymen began under the leadership of
Alfred Hair and
Harold Newton, a young genius from Tifton, Georgia . Both
were mentored by a well-known, educated white artist Albert Ernest Backus,
of Fort Pierce, Florida, described in the Times article as the dean
of Florida landscape painting by the time of his death in 1990. Professor
Monroe, however, emphasizes, Newton and Hair were self-taught. Backus
provided paint, a friendly place to work and the encouragement not to be
held back by western notions of color. Monroe added that Newton and
Hair are considered the two best artists of The Highwaymen, and
their works, while different in form and style, command the highest prices.
The Highwaymen, painting from their backyards and garages, worked largely
together for camaraderie and competition. They were driven by the joy of
working, according to Monroe, and they wanted to become financially independent.
Fun, said Monroe, became a function of making money.
They gave us a picture of nature and some of their paintings express an
Alfred Hair was killed in a gunfight over a woman in a bar, and
Harold Newton is also now dead. Several others
quit painting when Florida and the nation changed into the culture dominated
by theme parks and television-driven popular lifestyle. There are
eight or so still painting, according to Gary Monroe. Mary Ann Carroll,
who is 60, still painting, and whose royal poinciana trees will brighten
a dull room and lift the lowest spirits.
Al Black, another remaining Highwayman and at one time the groups
best salesman, still paints, but works from a Florida prison while he serves
out his sentence brought about by some financial schemes that triggered
a prosecution. Blacks paintings, which have become highly sought
by collectors, usually have three white birds soaring in a pale blue sky.
He says they represent the Holy Trinity. Occasionally, a viewer sees a
fourth bird. Thats me, Black told Mr. Monroe, because
I fell from grace.
Gibson, another survivor, still paints. While I was browsing through an
antique show a few weeks ago, a painting caught my eye. It depicted a small
bay, with reflected moonlight and had one old beaten-down palm tree by
the water with a moss covered oak in the foreground. Because the colors
were so vivid, I looked closely for a signature and bought it when I found
J Gibson on the bottom right corner. The owner said he found
it in a junk pile outside Savannah. Mr. Gibsons masterpiece has gone
full circle and after this timely rescue, now adorns a wall in my den where
it draws praise from everyone who has seen it.
What The Highwaymen once sold for $5 and $25 now can command $2,000
and up to $10,000 for an early Alfred Hair. Mary Ann Carroll is philosophical
about the cruel irony of art value. I had lots of fun, made a little
money and used the talent God gave me to make some nice friends.
My next purchase will be Ms. Carrolls one of a kind landscape paintings
with that scarlet-blossomed royal Poinciana tree.