Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Is a Florida Highwayman Hiding in Alabama?

Back in the day, before development forever changed much of the Florida panhandle, my father and his parents would make annual pilgrimages to a small fishing village somewhere further down that part of the Gulf coast. My mother thinks  the spot was Cedar Key, which in the 1940's and 1950's would have been tiny and away from it all. Pretty much still is, I guess. Not long after my parents married and when I was just a young sprout, there was an infamous family trip to wherever this fishing haven was. But that's another story....

If it was indeed Cedar Key, that's a nice touch. When he left Texas in the 1870's on the run from the Rangers, gunfighter John Wesley Hardin left New Orleans and landed in Cedar Key before making his way to Gainesville. He spent a couple of years hiding in Pollard in south Alabama before the Rangers finally caught up with him in Pensacola in August, 1877. But that's another story... 

Anyway, my grandparents were going to Florida in the mid-1950's when a group of African-American artists began to sell their quickly-done landscape paintings from the trunks of their cars in towns and along the tourist highways. Many were also sold door-to-door. This group of 26 individuals has since become known as the Florida Highwaymen. Alfred Hair, one of the group's original members, died in 1970 and their heydey seemed over. 

The art languished until Jim Fitch, an art historian, discovered it around 1995, and published an article about the artists. Journalist Jeff Klinkenberg also wrote several articles for a St. Petersburg newspaper about that time. More recently serious interest in the art and its creators has developed. There is even a Wikipedia page, for goodness sake. Several other pages on the web are here, here and here. Gary Monroe has just published a book on the group's only female member, Mary Ann Carroll. That work follows several others he has published on the Highwaymen. PBS broadcast a documentary in 2008. The art is now often identified as "folk" or "outsider" art.

Most of the artists were self-taught; mentoring by other group members was common. Inexpensive boards became their canvases; crown molding painted for an antique effect often framed the works. Most of the paintings featured Florida landscapes.

For years the painting below hung in a storage room my grandparents had as part of their garage and carport in Gadsden. When it came time to clean out their house, I took the work that no one else wanted. The piece remained in one of our basement closets until the Basement Event That Shall Remain Nameless last April made me take another look at it.

I remembered having read something about the Highwaymen years earlier, and this painting had the same bright colors, interesting details, cheap canvas and crown molding frame. Nothing on the painting itself or the back indicates anything about the artist or gives other information.

Is it a Highwayman piece? Who knows? The scene doesn't seem quite "Floridian". When I saw it often as a kid in that carport storage room, I thought it had a vaguely Asian feel. Did they have log cabins in China?

I'm not sure any of the actual Highwayment operated along the Panhandle; the east coast of Florida would have offered access to many more tourists in the 1950's through the 1970's. Perhaps it was painted by someone immitating their style.

Anyway, it's a colorful painting and for now it continues to hang in one of our basement closets. Maybe one day another child will re-discover it.  

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