Mary Ann Carroll was out driving when she discovered The Highwaymen for the first time. As a young woman, she had picked citrus and cotton like Al Black, and was raising seven children on her own. Times were hard for her and, again, painting was the ticket out.
An established artist, Harold Newton, showed her how to paint palms -- and she never stopped. For years she would pack her kids into the car to sell paintings after working all night.
Still living in the same house today, she recalls the time she spent in her garage: "Maybe it was dangerous sitting out there all night painting," she says. "But at the time, I never thought of it like that. I never thought of painting as a man or a woman's task. I just did it."
Today, Carroll is the founder of a small church – which literally congregates in a storage locker. She still appears at Florida art festivals to sell paintings. In 2001, she and The Highwaymen did get a significant boost with the publication of a book -- The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters, by writer and photographer Gary Monroe.
But, although times have gotten better, they are far from easy. The recognition and renaissance of The Highwaymen has prompted a new kind of struggle. People who spent time with A.E. Backus say that his original vision of the Florida landscape has been exploited.
"Some of them are really horrible, ugly paintings," says Kathleen Fredericks, executive director of the A.E. Backus Gallery and Museum in Fort Pierce.
Backus was one of Fredericks' childhood mentors, and she defends his reputation fiercely, believing The Highwaymen have borrowed too liberally from Backus' work. "There's a reason why they were viewed as motel art," Fredericks says.
To this day there is a broad divide in Fort Pierce -- not just an art spat, but perhaps vestigial racial tension from the days of Jim Crow. The city recognizes The Highwaymen, but doesn't seem to know how to include them. A particular sore point is a monument put up to honor them: The commission went to a white artist from Miami.
"We had a struggle," says Carroll, "and we still have a struggle here in St. Lucie County, kid you not."
In recent years, the Backus museum organized a festival for The Highwaymen, but it devolved into acrimony and accusations. The Highwaymen don't feel appreciated; the museum claims that the painters have eclipsed Backus. And now The Highwaymen have unified their business strategy, forming a nonprofit group, The Original Florida Highwaymen, to protect their interests.
So where is the spirit of tolerance and inclusivity that everyone remembers from Backus' home studio?
Everyone has a different story to tell. Even among The Highwaymen, opinions and memories differ. They don't all tell it the same way, see it the same way, or paint their own history in the same hues. But Carroll says no matter what, she knows her life is better for having been an artist.
"My life," she says, "no matter how bad it might have been, I took joy out of it. I took the bad and reframed it. You know like you take a bad painting and put it in a beautiful frame? It makes a difference."