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FOLK ART


The Highwaymen

by Doc Lawrence


Sylvester Wells


Harold Newton
Al Black

James Gibson

Mary Ann Carroll

 

When Atlanta’s 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 seascapes.

“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 50’s on up into the early 80’s. A recent feature in The New York Times credited The Highwaymen with shaping Florida’s “…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 weren’t exactly the norm for Southern blacks. Through their realization that art was both a creative outlet and a means of economic betterment, they painted—never in collaboration, but rather as a club or fraternal order—using 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 collector’s 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. It’s not and the reasons are both sad and interesting.

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 existential longing.”

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 group’s 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. Black’s 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. “That’s me,” Black told Mr. Monroe, “because I fell from grace.”

James 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. Gibson’s 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. Carroll’s one of a kind landscape paintings with that scarlet-blossomed royal Poinciana tree.

 

 

Link to more Folk Art:

Kentuck 2002

Reverend Howard Finster - An American Shaman

Folk Art in the Big Easy

FolkFest 2002

Folk Art

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