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The Highwaymen

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, originally published August 6, 1995


First of two parts

On a sultry summer day, with clouds puffed up above the Indian River like surreal cotton candy, Al Black should be painting. He should have his easel out, and his canvas, and his good paint. Not the cheap house paints he once had to use, but expensive paints, fitting for a real artist.

He should paint the oak trees on the shore near his home in Fort Pierce, over by Jack Island, on the other side of the causeway. He should paint the moss-draped oaks and add a few cabbage palms for good measure. He ought to paint some herring gulls, three to be exact. Al always liked his gulls to come in his trademark threes.

When he finishes the painting, Al Black should head inland, to the pond he knows about, the one where two slash pines stand tall, blocking out the sky at sunset. The sunset will be an otherworldly combination of red and orange, and the clouds will be gray and moody. The egrets will be large and white, and they will be patroling the shallows, hunting for frogs to eat before dark.

Al could sell the hell out of either painting.

"Mister," he could tell a potential customer, "my name is Al Black and I'm an artist. I do paintings of Florida. I was noticing you don't have any paintings on your wall. I thought you might be interested in one of mine."

Anybody who ever saw Al work customers door-to-door knows he has a silver tongue. And Al needs money. If he had some right now, Al could buy himself lunch, some clean clothes and maybe rent himself a nice place to live. He still could realize the American Dream and all of that.

But word is out that Al Black has stopped painting. Al's American Dream has gone up in smoke. He is the Highwayman who took the wrong turn and got lost.

An artistic tradition

There is a white art historian who is always asking Al questions. His name is Jim Fitch, and once he even drove over to Fort Pierce to interview Al in jail. Al fascinates Fitch, who has spent years investigating one of Florida's least known artistic traditions, a tradition Fitch calls "The Highwaymen."

For more than four decades, the Highwaymen -- African-American landscape artists -- have painted Florida nature scenes, loaded their work into their cars and taken it on the road, stopping in small towns and big cities to sell door-to-door at businesses and sometimes busy corners.

Highwaymen, by tradition, work fast and sometimes talk even faster. Some paint three or four pictures a day and have a smooth sales pitch. They seldom waste an ounce of paint or an extra brush stroke on a picture. They usually paint generic Florida landscapes -- rivers, beaches and forest -- and price them to sell quickly.

For most, painting was, and continues to be, a way to escape minimum-wage jobs or welfare. Even so, few have struck it rich or won any fame.

The handful of Highwaymen still painting for the most part avoid the public eye and do nothing that might draw the attention of tax collectors, bureaucrats who might ask to see occupational licenses, or policemen looking to enforce "no soliciting" ordinances.

Most of the painters go to their graves without recognition. The one painter who has made it big is Jim Fitch's friend Robert Butler. When he started so many decades ago, he cranked out hundreds of paintings and sold his art at the standard Highwayman price, $35.

Now only the rich can afford a Robert Butler. Robert still spends much of his time on the highway, but only when he wants to and only on his own terms.

For the other Highwaymen, the road has been a long and sometimes difficult one.

Al Black has been in and out of trouble for decades. While his art is appreciating in value -- collectors are paying hundreds of dollars for his paintings -- he lives in poverty and struggles to keep out of jail.

His highway seems destined to lead to oblivion.

Practically a Highwayman

Sometimes Jim Fitch thinks he spends enough time on the road to qualify as a Highwayman himself.

At 60, Jim owns a business in Sebring called the Kissimmee Valley Gallery, specializing in Florida art. He is still acquiring paintings for the future Museum of Florida's Art and Culture. He intends for the art and history of the Highwaymen to have a prominent place. He has been collecting their art for years. He has 10 Al Black paintings.

Jim -- and you should know this about Jim -- is a man of many talents. Jim studies art, theology, archaeology, nature, history and anthropology.

"I don't want someone to write on my tombstone, "He was a good merchant,' " Jim explains, in a staccato twang that sounds like Ross Perot.

For now, Jim is collecting Highwaymen paintings. Maybe today, if he is lucky, he will get another Al Black.

The Highwayman tradition began in Fort Pierce in the 1950s. It began with a white artist named A.E. Backus and a black art teacher named Zanobia Jefferson.

Backus -- everybody called him "Bean" -- probably was Florida's best-known landscape artist at the time. He was a kindly alcoholic who loved Florida and had a knack for capturing it on canvas.

Among his black friends was Mrs. Jefferson, just beginning what was a productive teaching career that continues to this day.

Mrs. Jefferson sent her most promising art student from Lincoln Park Academy High School to Bean Backus for special lessons. His name was Alfred Hair.

A fast learner, Alfred would go home after his lessons and teach about 20 of his friends what Bean Backus had taught him. Soon, in Alfred's back yard, all were painting landscapes.

Florida was not known as a state that supported the arts. There were more poor people struggling to make ends meet than rich people who could afford the luxury of buying art from a prominent painter like Bean Backus. In fact, there was little true Florida-inspired art even available for sale.

Alfred Hair, and the other African-American painters he had taught in his back yard, began trying to sell their work. Merchants, they found, were enthusiastic buyers of cheap Florida landscape paintings they could throw up on the walls of their banks, businesses or motel rooms. For the young artists, painting was a ticket out of the orange groves and the tomato fields.

It was hardly the kind of work that causes professors of fine art to break into applause. But common folks who wanted a painting that captured something of real Florida liked it.

"The Highwaymen," Jim Fitch says, "filled an important niche in Florida art. They produced inexpensive art that appealed to people who ordinarily didn't buy art. They developed a market nobody else was working."

The Highwaymen cranked out paintings using materials at hand. Lacking canvas, they sometimes painted on the back of cheap boarding used in house overhangs. They built picture frames out of carpenter's door trim. They used house paints instead of the expensive art store colors.

Alfred Hair held backyard barbecues and beer fests for his fellow artists; sometimes they produced 35 paintings in a day. Often they used an assembly-line approach. One artist might paint the water while another did the sky. Some Highwaymen were river specialists, beach specialists or forest specialists. Al Black always thought of himself as a bird specialist.

Eventually the Highwaymen began selling the $35 paintings beyond the city limits of Fort Pierce. They moved up and down along the east coast on U.S. 1, and then traveled two-lane country roads leading into the Florida interior.

Searching for the artists

You would think it would be easy for Jim Fitch to find the Highwaymen, to find Al Black. You'd think he'd roll into Fort Pierce, put out the word, and the painters would flock to him, a man who wants to highlight their work and their lives. But that has not happened.

He has had to work hard for scraps of information about the artists.

Finding the paintings, fortunately, has been less tricky. Jim goes to garage sales and thrift shops and east coast galleries. He has bought 22 paintings for as little as $1. The most he has paid is $450.

The paintings are signed by the artists, though some paintings only have a last name, or only a first name, or only a nickname on them.

Jim thinks there have been at least 21 Highwaymen. Some have passed away. Some got discouraged and quit as more cities required expensive occupational licenses or started enforcing "No Soliciting" laws.

Most of the working Highwaymen have eluded him, a white man who looks something like a bespectacled Andy Griffith, carries a legal pad and asks blunt questions that may scare shy folks into thinking he has come to make their hard lives even harder.

Initially, he found it difficult making any inroads into the close-knit black community of Fort Pierce. Nobody seemed willing to believe he wanted to help the artists. But he persisted. Zanobia Jefferson, the woman who knew Bean Backus and taught many of the Highwaymen in high school, has provided a few names to go with the paintings.

The Highwaymen, Jim has learned, were more interested in production than they were art, and more interested in being paid than artistic acclaim. The signature sometimes signified who did the art, but not always. When a painting was a team effort, the signature might simply indicate who completed it or did the most work.

Some Highwaymen -- and there is one woman, Mary Alice Carrol, who still is active -- were content to paint almost by formula. The archetypal Highwayman painting, a generic Florida river scene, always was a big seller. Only the most ambitious artists risked losing sales by developing their own style.

The original Highwayman, Alfred Hair, was among the most gifted. He loved woodland scenes, and painted marsh grass that looked almost angry. Jim Fitch owns some Hair paintings. Two clearly are Hair's work because they show his characteristic vivid paint strokes. The third painting, which looks nothing like the other two, is signed A. Hir.

Who actually did the painting?

Jim doesn't know.

Traveling the back roads

Jim considers driving a car a grueling affair, a disadvantage when you're hunting Al Black or Highwaymen paintings. On a steamy afternoon, he has drafted a volunteer who likes to get behind the wheel.

Heading for Fort Pierce, we drive the back roads through citrus groves and pastures where red-shouldered hawks glower from the tops of cabbage palms. Jim points out the location of lost Indian mounds and old graveyards. He talks non-stop about art, about life.

Jim says he reads mostly non-fiction, history, archaeology, and the most important book of all, the Bible. At 4:30 a.m., after some inspired reading, he sometimes writes essays about God and man for like-minded friends at his church, Grace Brethren. He hates exercise, but he hops around to a Richard Simmons video every morning.

Here are other things you can learn about Jim during a long road trip: He grew up in Fort Lauderdale, then a paradise for hunters like him. Eventually he and his wife moved to Okeechobee, where he raised quail and had a paint contracting business.

One day, 25 years ago, he saw a striking painting -- it was a flock of turkeys in a swamp -- hanging in a hardware store. The painting spoke to Jim's deepest feelings about the natural Florida he loved. The price: $35.

"I couldn't afford that painting," Jim says, "but I had to have it. I paid for it in three installments."

Jim met the artist, Robert Butler, and they became friends, unusual for Okeechobee -- and the deep South -- at a time when black and white folks seldom mixed. But they had a lot in common, from their love of Florida to their love of the Bible. Jim began building picture frames for Robert and giving him advice about his career.

Jim's interest in Robert contributed to his decision to open an art gallery. Then he became fascinated with the Highwaymen tradition to which Robert belonged.

Today, on this hot afternoon, curiosity puts him on U.S. 98, and U.S. 98 puts him on State Road 68, and State Road 68 carries him into Fort Pierce.

"There it is!" Jim says sharply. He has just spotted the "Sometimes Beautiful" antique shop.

He has gotten a tip about this place. The musty little store has a $75 Highwayman painting of a royal poinciana tree, in breathtaking orange bloom. The painting is signed by R.A. McClendon.

"Roy's a will-of-a-wisp who wanders around Fort Pierce," Jim explains to the red-haired owner. "I haven't caught hold of his coattails yet."

Jim admires the painting but declines to buy; the owner tells him she thinks her pastor has some Highwaymen paintings he might be willing to sell.

"You have to follow a lot of rabbit trails," Jim says. "Some of them don't lead anywhere."

This one does.

Jim meets the white-haired pastor at the First Assembly Church of God. The pastor has two paintings hanging in the church hall, a river scene by Alfred Hair, and a boathouse scene by Sam Newton, whose brother, the late Harold Newton, was among the best of the Highwaymen artists, known for his spectacularly stormy beaches.

"The gentleman used to come around every Christmas and I'd buy a painting from him," the pastor says. "He always brought two -- said he wanted to give me a choice -- but I know that rascal was hoping I'd buy both."

Jim follows the pastor home.

The pastor's favorite painting hangs in his living room in a dark corner. It is among the largest Highwayman paintings Jim has seen, about 48 inches long and 24 inches deep. Like so many other Highwayman paintings, it is a somewhat formulaic river scene, with moss-draped oak trees and stately cabbage palms and three gulls floating in a perfect sky.

Jim can't read the signature.

The pastor fetches Fitch a flashlight.

"Al Black!"

Paint it, peddle it

In his prime, Al Black would knock off a painting and hit the highway.

"He paints for money," Jim wrote in an anthropology report last April. "Not willing to invest any more of his time, talent or material in a painting than is absolutely necessary, he has developed a style that is free of laborious toil. He puts it down and lets it be."

Jim Fitch interviewed Al Black for the first time in 1994, when Al was staying in the St. Lucie County jail on a cocaine charge. That day, Al enjoyed talking about his art, and Fitch gave him a snapshot-sized print of an old painting. Al was thrilled. With the snapshot he could prove to fellow inmates that he was not lying about being an artist.

A year later, Jim has new questions, but Al no longer is in jail and is harder to track down. With his lifestyle, he might even be dead.

From a convenience store pay phone, Jim calls a woman who has helped him and Al in the past. She gives him a lead.

Al is living in the most depressed building in what is probably Fort Pierce's most depressed neighborhood. It's a two-story shack. Some windows of the sky-blue boarding house are boarded; empty bottles lie in a gravel parking lot. Jim Fitch leaps out of the truck and strolls toward the back of the boarding house. Five young men, drinking beer hidden in paper bags, walk sullenly toward him.

"Hey, Al," Jim addresses someone in the crowd.

"Hi, Mr. Fitch."

* * *

Jim climbs into the back of the small pickup truck and invites Al Black to sit in the cab. It seems simple enough, but Al looks guilty as his eyes dart toward his friends, who watch him intently, as if he were a police informer or something.

"I'd rather ride in the back of the truck," he whispers to Jim.

Jim shrugs; he doesn't understand what makes Al tick; Jim yields the back of the truck to the artist.

Through an open truck window, Al directs Jim and the driver down one side street and up another all the way to U.S. 1, to McDonald's. Al gets a Quarter-Pounder and a vanilla shake. Al, who is 6-foot-2 and weighs 180 pounds when healthy, looks emaciated and ill. His eyes are watery. He doesn't mind talking, but his words are lethargic.

He says he was born in Mississippi 49 years ago. He was a boy when he came to Florida. He says he went to work as a salesman for Alfred Hair's original Highwayman team as a teenager in the early 1960s. "I knew how to talk to people," he says. "I could sell them anything." Then he started painting.

Al Black says he sometimes was part of a team of artists who would work on a single painting. Alfred Hair would tell him, "Jump on this painting for me" and Al might add a couple of flourishes, maybe three sea birds. Three sea birds were his specialty, he says: one bird for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost. But most of the time, Al painted his own pictures. Then he didn't have to share his profits.

Jim shows Al a snapshot of an old painting.

"Al, it's a beautiful job you did. I can tell you wanted to work that day."

"Yeah, I did. That was the south fork of the river. I saw the gloom on the water, you know, the fog, and I wanted to get home and paint it right away. When I was painting good, I could do 10 paintings a day! I could make $5,000 a week! I sold paintings everywhere, in Florida, east coast and west coast; Tampa and St. Pete; New York City; Montgomery, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi."

Al says he has a lot of painting left in him. He's interested in trying a new technique, layering paints, to create a moody feeling. He saw such a painting in Key Largo once, and he never has forgotten it.

"I could do it just as good," he says.

Al says he no longer is painting.

He says somebody walked off with his paints and his easels and his canvases. Big shots claim they'll loan him the money for new equipment, Al says, but they want too much of his profits in return. He says one dude offered to pay him a $300 a week salary if Al would assign him rights to all his paintings.

"No way, man."

"But at least that would be steady income," Jim Fitch says.

Al shrugs.

Jim asks Al to show him where Alfred Hair lived and worked and organized the other painters. Al nods and walks out of the restaurant to the truck. Al calls out the directions all the way to Dunbar Street. Alfred Hair's modest house is in a quiet working-class suburb. From the street you can see how he turned his carport into a studio.

In 1969, Alfred Hair visited a jook joint on Avenue D called Eddie's Drive-In, which is now the Reno Motel. Hair usually stayed out of night clubs -- by most accounts, he was a God-fearing family man -- but on that night he made an exception. A brawl broke out between strangers, who pulled pistols and began firing. Alfred Hair, the original Highwayman, was slow to duck. He was just 32.

Al Black says to let him out on the corner; he doesn't want to return to the boarding house just yet. Too many bad men there who will beg him for money -- or plain steal it.

"Mr. Fitch," he says, "I have to ask you for $300, just so I can get started again. With $300 I can get me some paints and brushes and be an artist again."

Jim is moved by Al's plight. But he also is cautious. Even if Jim were rich and had an extra $300, he'd be reluctant to invest in a man who has been in jail on drug charges and looks troubled even now. Jim tells Al he would rather mail him painting supplies. How would that be?

Al Black looks disappointed.

"How about a check?, Mr. Fitch. Can you give me a check for $100? Mr. Fitch, that would help me so much."

Jim reaches into his wallet and hands Al $10.

Al says thanks and disappears around the corner.

* * *

Next week: Landscape artist Robert Butler and the highway to Africa.

The highwaymen

Curtis Arnett

Hezekiah Baker

Al Baker

George Buckner

Ellis Buckner

Robert Butler

Mary Alice Carrol

J. "Hook" Daniels

Fox (first name unknown)

James Gibson

Alfred Hair, aka "A. Hare" and "A. Hir"

Israel Knight

Lewis McDaniel

R.A. McClendon

Harold Newton

L. Newton

Sam Newton

Livingston Roberts, aka "Castro"

Charles Walker

List courtesy of Jim Ritch, Kissimmee Callery, 13300 U.S. 98, Sebring, FL 33870.

(813) 655-0392

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