JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
If you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
And now, a story I happened to palm this past winter on a drive through central coastal Florida in the town Fort Pierce. Route 1 is now dominated by strip malls and fading condos, but the Florida of the 1950s and '60s was a candy-colored Eisenhower-Kennedy space age dream of flaming red Poinciana trees and untamed beaches.
This setting gave way to the improbable rise of the Highwaymen, young African-American painters making their fortunes in the Jim Crow south. The paintings are boldly colored landscapes depicting scenes that used to be common in this part of Florida, moss-draped live oak hanging over moonlit river inlets, delicate white eaglets flying across a brilliant orange sunset, palm trees that arch like sabers over the ocean, all painted by the Highwaymen on boards made of leftover construction material. And all sold by the group's smooth-talking salesman, Al Black.
AL BLACK: Good morning. So my name is Al Black. I have some oil paintings. I wanted to know would you all be interested, if it wouldn't take up too much of you all's time.
LYDEN: With that pitch, 50 years ago, Al Black would troll up and down U.S. 1 looking sharp, driving a 1962 blue and white Ford Galaxy, fresh Florida landscapes packed in his trunk.
BLACK: And most of the time, they would say, yes, I'll look. And once they looked, I would sell them some.
LYDEN: They sell for thousands now. They're collector's items, owned by celebrities like Shaquille O'Neal and Steven Spielberg. Highwaymen paintings hang in the Florida statehouse and at the White House.
MARY ANN CARROLL: People started going at these paintings like wildfire.
LYDEN: Mary Ann Carroll is a tall gray-haired woman in her 70s now, but decades ago, she was a young divorcee with seven kids, picking citrus and doing odd jobs to put food on the table. One day, she saw a black man painting those beautiful coastal scenes, and her eyes fell on his car.
CARROLL: Flames print on the side, on the fender. Then he looked in the back and showed me he had a painting, I guess, to prove that he was an artist. And so I said, will you show me? He tacked me up a little 18-by-24 board. And when I got through, it looked all right, but it was just naked. So what he did, he put two palm trees in it. And I sold the painting. I don't know where I sold it. Don't remember how much I sold it for.
LYDEN: For Carroll, it started as a way to make a living, but the original Highwaymen painter, the man who started it all was a teenage artist named Alfred Hair.
JAMES GIBSON: Alfred was a smart dude.
LYDEN: James Gibson, Alfred Hair's best friend and fellow painter.
GIBSON: He could paint fast, and people buying the paintings real fast. He was selling paintings, like, 19 and $20. You can paint four or five paintings in a day. That's $100 a day. But you got to go and sell your paintings.
LYDEN: Back in the '60s, Alfred Hair, a charismatic and talented high school student from a good family, was taken by his art teacher across the railroad tracks, literally the color line in Fort Pierce, to see a famous local artist and humanitarian named A.E. Beanie Backus.
GIBSON: Alfred had gone down to Mr. Backus. Mr. Backus was a famous white artist.
LYDEN: James Gibson remembers it this way.
GIBSON: At this particular time, his door was open to anybody who was interested in art - black, whatever, white, anybody. And if you're interested, he'll be your teacher. And so what happened, after showing his first painting, then he wrote and told me, James, I went to Mr. Backus and he taught me how to paint. And if I did it, I know you can do it.
LYDEN: They were making money and happy to show it at the dog track, on fancy cars, on women. No one lived like the Highwaymen. There was envy from other men. One night, it came to a head at a juke joint called Eddie's Place.
BLACK: Me and him went out and he said, meet me down at Eddie's Place.
LYDEN: The events of that night have become as epic as a blues song. All the Highwaymen tell slightly different versions of what happened. Al Black, Alfred's top salesman, claims he was at Eddie's that night.
BLACK: Alfred went over to the juke box and pushed...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAR")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) War...
BLACK: ..."War," what is it good for, absolutely nothing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAR")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) ...what is it good for, absolutely nothing. Oh. War, ooh, yeah.
BLACK: And J.L. shot him in the chest.
LYDEN: Alfred Hair was 29 years old, and he died that night.
BLACK: When we took him to the hospital, I was the onliest one standing by the bed when he died.
GIBSON: I am the one that talked to Alfred last.
LYDEN: Artist James Gibson.
GIBSON: He was trying to tell me something, and I put my ear, then Dr. Goulds(ph) came in and said that Alfred Hair's retired.
LYDEN: When Alfred Hair died, the enterprise of the Highwaymen nearly died with him. Demand dwindled. By the '90s, the painters had all but stopped, which left their salesman, Al Black, with no paintings to sell. He started making his own, but that led to other problems.
BLACK: That's right. You can have foot trouble, back trouble, neck trouble, all kind of trouble. You ain't had no trouble until you had some crack cocaine trouble.
LYDEN: He was caught up in drug addiction and was accused of fraud. Al Black ended up in prison where he'd spend 12 years adorning the state prison system with his signature murals. He's out now, but we went with him to the Central Florida Reception Center to take a look at some of his masterpieces painted right on the cinderblock walls of the prison.
BLACK: This is early morning backwood marsh scene. This is a real popular painting. And I wanted to paint something that would keep me busy and then also make the inmates feel better with the paintings around.
LYDEN: Not all the highwaymen were sidetracked so dramatically. Most had day jobs, families or moved out of state. But James Gibson kept painting prolifically. He showed us his paintings the old-fashioned way, pulling them out of the trunk of his white Cadillac Escalade.
GIBSON: This the main groves. This is...
LYDEN: Whoa, look at that.
GIBSON: You got all the brilliant colors - bright orange, yellow. When it get cold, you look at each color, and it'll warm you up mentally.
LYDEN: Oh, that is really lovely.
LYDEN: If you want yellow, Gibson will paint it for you in yellow or blue or orange. The highwaymen have come a long way since the days of their first efforts. A book, written about them in 2001, helped put them back before the public eye. They started painting again, going to little festivals. They started becoming better known than the white painter who'd inspired them, Beanie Backus, and that has caused tension and resentment in Fort Pierce.
Some of them are really horrible, ugly paintings.
Kathleen Fredericks watched Backus paint as a girl. Now, she's the executive director of the Backus Gallery and Museum. And as Backus' legacy is overshadowed by the Highwaymen, her relations with the painters have become more and more bitter.
There's a reason that they were viewed as motel art. A lot of those images were conceived of because they came to Backus' studio, and they said: Oh, ponsienna trees - he's selling a lot of those. Palm trees, these ranch scenes, they couldn't go out and paint paintings on the Adams Ranch. They'd have been run off and shot.
Words that hinted more than a small town art spat, perhaps vestigial racial tension from Jim Crow to the present. The city of Fort Pierce recognizes the Highwaymen but still doesn't seem to know how to include them. Again, female highwayman artist Mary Ann Carroll.
CARROLL: We have struggled, and they are still struggling here in St. Lucie County, kid you not. And, well, like the Bible said, a prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown. I mean, I can tell you, I love you, you - shake your hand, hug your neck, but deep within, am I telling the truth? It's going to show.
LYDEN: Recently, the Highwaymen have formed a nonprofit group to protect their interests, but the individual highwaymen have also diverged to pursue individual careers. Some, like James Gibson, operate small galleries, others live precariously. White collectors dominate the market, while the Highwaymen travel to art festivals around the state. As he prepared for a festival in far away Tallahassee, we visited Al Black in the paint-splattered tent that serves as his backyard studio. Out of prison now, he makes a living selling his own paintings. He told us he hoped to finish six more to bring with him that weekend. Sounds like a lot, but he already had four going at once.
BLACK: This is going to be a backwood marsh scene. This is going to be a moonlight in the Indian River. And this is going to be down at the dock where they put the boats in the water.
LYDEN: Today, Al Black is one of the few Highwaymen artists who still paint this way - outdoors, several canvasses at a time. It's this kind of assembly line technique that makes some people question whether this is really art. Al Black is certain it is.
BLACK: See, for instance, these paintings, what I'm painting on right now, these are some good paintings because I'm putting my heart into them.
LYDEN: The raw paintings have first looked like there might be a beach scene - a strip of tan, a yellow sun, a blue background. You prepared the sky, the horizon, the ocean and the reflection.
BLACK: This is what you call cleaning it up.
LYDEN: Blending everything.
BLACK: That's right. According to what you want to paint that day, you can start it off different. See, I don't do all my paintings like this. These moonlights, these are here the hard ones. See, most of the people that they put that blue and that green and that black and stuff, it'll turn into mud.
LYDEN: As Al speaks, he takes black paint and dots it on the yellow. And suddenly, it's not a beach scene at all. It's the mangroves and palms at night on the water. And that transformation is the story of art and of young, black Florida painters, now elderly, who once drove up and down Highway 1 selling wet-to-the-touch landscapes out of the trunks of their cars.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LYDEN: I think Al's nearly done.
BLACK: No, these are not done. I'm putting the birds in them. In all my paintings up here, notice there's three birds in them. There's one for the father, one for the son and one for the Holy Spirit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LYDEN: To see a video of Al Black and hear his sales pitch and to see him painting and more of the Highwaymen art, please go to our website, npr.org. Check out the Highwaymen interactive. Our thanks to videographer Dave Anderson of Southword and the Oxford American magazine. Also, our thanks to Gary Monroe, who's documented the Highwaymen in books and whose photos are featured in NPR's Picture Show blog. And a special thanks to the producer of the Highwaymen series, Liz Baker, who was a great sidekick out on the road.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.