Seldom do we find such poignant examples of the resilience of outsider artists persistently honing a craft as uncovered by the story of the Highwaymen Artists. Anyone looking for inspiration will discover a wealth of tenacity singing from the works of Willie Daniels, John Maynor and others of this revived crew. 26 recognized original artists of whom only one woman hails, these creative souls quietly revolutionize lines between privilege and providence. A glimpse into their history, technique and recent success nurtures a heart of appreciation for fate’s twists.
Fort Pierce, Florida, as many towns in the U.S., withstood the ravages of racism in the late 1950s. Those who felt it most painfully worked the citrus groves and packing houses. The heat and hurry of it all left little room for extras in the lives of African Americans working their way out of racism’s grip. But a unique group emerged, merging their lives in a rush of learning oils in the style of A.E. Backus. Taking evenings and weekends to hone their skill, they found success in broad sweeping brushstrokes, painting canvasses of Florida’s lush landscape. Vacationers appreciated the unique and thickly rich reflections of trees against shining marshlands, setting suns and the reminder of times spent in leisure.
For these artists, the notion of schooling to hone their craft was simply that: a notion. Financial restrictions and the color of their skin closed doors taken for granted. Unable to afford typical supplies, they improvised, using Upson board as canvas and piling them into the trunks of their cars to travel the highways of Florida in search of buyers.
Lack of time to focus solely on art was the tool in fate’s hands whose impression wrought an unusual style. Hurried knives and brush strokes pushed the edges of conventional technique, unfolding a soulful primitive appeal. Daniel’s gnarly oaks and Maynor’s signature reflections went for $25.00 a piece in those days. Need for extra income painted hues more intense for these artists whose practicality rested in a sense of pleasure to accomplish, no matter who did or did not get the credit. They would sometimes sign one artist’s name on another’s work in order to please buyers attached to particular artists. It was about pushing past barriers.
By the late ‘60s, interest in the works of these fast learners waned. But their spirit endured the lull and found recognition in the late ‘90s when art experts, Gary Monroe and Jim Fitch, enthusiastically highlighted the appeal of their style and historical wealth. While the Highwaymen Artists never knew themselves as such, they have grown to be called by their selling technique, the Saturday drives along Florida’s highways distinguishing them historically. What once sold for $25.00 now goes for sometimes 10 times the amount. And the unfolding of fate’s strokes across the world of art reflects beautifully in their work. The Highwaymen Artists are worth knowing by name, by the colors of their resilience.