Plate 11 Gary Monroe Highwayman
George Buckner painted more deliberately and patiently than other Highwaymen. Collection of Rich and Andria Kerchner

 

Art History in the Making
Recognizing the Movers and Shakers
of the Highwaymen Phenomenon

by: Gary Monroe

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 2008

The Highwaymen phenomenon began a dozen years ago when Jim Fitch identified the perfect name to call attention to these forgotten artists who documented Florida’s visual legacy. By then the banner days of these painters, from 1960 to 1980, had ended. For nearly two decades their paintings, which were once everywhere, were then often relegated to storage and, ultimately, to garage sales. Many people, however, maintained their connections with the glowing versions of Florida as Paradise which the Highwaymen had created. Today their paintings are collectively recognized as a part of our shared vision, culture and history of the Sunshine State. Since the mid 1990s their story has been enhanced, a phenomenon of which has been reported by Jim and me in this magazine. Beyond our contributions, many others are also responsible for helping establish the Highwaymen’s legacy.

As a non commercial photographer (I teach college and am afforded the luxury of pursuing my personal work-as-art) writing Highwaymen books was a privilege. I have completed three of these; now I am returning to my first and foremost love of wandering, far from home, with my Leica and Tri-X film. (Yes, I still shoot film.) Nevertheless, with this article, I do want to share my views about who has contributed to the promotion and advancement of Highwaymen art.


23 3/8" x 19 1/4" Oil on Masonite

When I began my Highwaymen research, I had the pleasure of getting to know Tim Jacobs and Geoff Cook, each a passionate collector of this art. Both built wonderful collections when it was a most exciting time to discover these paintings. Tim, with a collection in tact, returned to his demanding NASA-related career while continuing his effort to document and catalog the range of Highwaymen art. Meanwhile, Geoff, retired from agriculture management, continued to build his collection. He loaned part of it to the Orange County Regional History Center for a traveling exhibition, from which a book written by Bob Beatty contains many of his pieces. Through Geoff’s generosity and goodwill this art was exposed to many new admirers.

Others played roles in helping to establish the Highwaymen. I have acknowledged many of these people in my Highwaymen books; in fact, the art in them was culled from their collections. The University Press of Florida publishes my books, and their successes are largely due to the team efforts there. Meredith Babb, the press’s director, guided me and, frankly, saw the potential for The Highwaymen before I did. The artists and their families were, of course, central in everyone’s understandings of the story. Not surprisingly the healthy reality of Highwaymen art has come from its commercial availability. A handful of people structured this marketplace from around Melbourne to Palm Beach, which coincidentally spans the Highwaymen’s primary sales route.

Grant Antique Mall, billed as the Mecca of Highwaymen Art, maintains a large inventory. Rich Kirchner, who recently took ownership, has kept the lively atmosphere that Chris Rosner and Terry Green established. Howard Brassner, whose family is well known as fine art dealers, first showed the Highwaymen in a fine arts setting. At his Art Link International gallery in Lake Worth one can see a M. Carroll and a M. Chagall. In Ft. Pierce, from where the Highwaymen emerged, Cody McQueen opened The Bamboo Beach Gallery at the then just-renovated Arcade building; he has recently relocated to a larger space in Stuart.

The Arcade has become a shopping-center for Highwaymen art. Four terrific galleries fill the space. Geoff Cook opened Florida Art and Antiques, while a collaborative opened The Legendary Highwaymen Art Gallery. Kelvin Hair, Alfred Hair’s son, opened his own gallery there, The Official Highwaymen Gallery, which includes his fine landscape paintings. Recently Howard opened his second gallery there. The Backus Museum and Gallery, also in Ft. Pierce, is the home of The Highwaymen Festival, which Geoff co-founded years ago; it also has a space set aside to offer Highwaymen art.

It seems like eons ago that Ty and Jean Tyson in far-away Micanopy opened their Highwaymen gallery at Tyson Trading Company, their folk art and antiques shop. More shops, including Raphael Periut’s Antiques and Arts in New Smyrna Beach and some belonging to the Highwaymen themselves (Roy McLendon in Vero and Robert Lewis in Cocoa), as well as a host of antiques malls vending Highwaymen works are further testimony to the popularity of this art. And there are Highwaymen festivals throughout the state, seemingly each weekend during "the season." All of this Highwaymen attention points to a new consciousness about Florida art and culture.


Roy McLendon’s signature image. Collection of the author

Geoff told me that his interest began with St. Petersburg reporter Jeff Klinkenberg’s fine article about the Highwaymen. In it he saw a Harold Newton "fire sky" scene and exclaimed "Been there; saw that!" and his odyssey was launched. Geoff’s epiphany reflects the popular interest in recapturing something very beautiful and elemental, and increasingly vanishing: old Florida at its best. There are, undoubtedly, many reasons that bring people to the Highwaymen, everything from a newfound appreciation for our state or even budding environmental concerns inspired by these images, to just wanting to live with the transcendent paintings. Maybe the impetus is simply to own original works of art, or to possess part of the Highwaymen’s Cinderella story. Some collectors find the hunt irresistible; some proceed thematically, buying a piece by each of the 26 Highwaymen.

After all is said and done, this Highwaymen phenomenon has made consummate art collectors of people without art backgrounds, and this is wonderful. I started out wanting to tell a story, but as the Highwaymen enamored me with their tale and their work, I wanted to look at their art’s unique aesthetic more closely. I argued in The Highwaymen that these unlikeliest of painters became artists by default because, through their fast-painting technique, they rather stumbled onto a fresh approach to the genre of American landscape imagery. My view about this was not popular and probably isn’t today, but I maintain that it is my prime contribution; if the Highwaymen are to live after their story is told and told again to finally find their place in the history books, their paintings must remain relevant if their value is to be lasting as art. The dialectic of aesthetics and art history demands this.

Florida is fortunate but Ft. Pierce was blessed by Bean Backus; he remains the picture-perfect regionalist and the man who inspired the Highwaymen as well as countless other painters. He is not only "the dean of Florida art," but also the model regionalist. His paintings have become iconic representations that embrace the idea of Florida, even beyond the central east coast that inspired them. Collectors, many of whom were introduced to the art of oil painting through the Highwaymen, have Backus to thank. Further, Backus is where these collectors graduated to, if their financial resources allowed. This is in keeping, actually, with the Highwaymen’s roots; their paintings were affordable renditions of the Eden that Backus’s painted and loved. It is no wonder that collectors desire the works of Florida’s chief artist.


A Harold Newton painting that epitomized his controlled brush work and ability to render Florida’s light astutely. Collection of the author.

 

Geoff and I, along with the others, worked hard to bring recognition to the Highwaymen. Eventually they entered the scene with a bang and are now established, but I believe that we are still witnessing something that has not reached its maturity. Today Howard Brassner has assumed a lead role in promoting the Highwaymen as I return to my newly-renovated darkroom (yes, I still print my photographs this way) to catch up on some 1,000 rolls of film that have been staring me down for quite a while now. So, as new Highwaymen collectors enter the fold and veteran collectors round out their holdings, others are branching out to acquire other Florida artists, both contemporary and from prior generations.

Scott Schlesinger, a true renaissance man, collects Florida art in a big way; additionally, he supports the arts financially. Scott began with the Highwaymen, and like many Highwaymen art fans, gravitated to Harold Newton. Newton’s work, in turn, led Scott to Backus’s art. Once he had Backus paintings in his collection, Scott took premier Florida art collectors Sam and Robbie Vickers’s lead. Indeed, the book by arts impresario Gary Libby, director emeritus of the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Science, Celebrating Florida: Works from the Vickers Collection, is "the bible" for many of the new collectors of this genre. Scott acquired and continues to purchase 19th century works, including museum pieces by Herman Herzog and Thomas Moran, among other giants in the art world.

There are more people of course, who have established collections, but I am taken by the recent and, especially, impassioned collectors. Alfred Frankel and George Arnold have extensive Florida art holdings. Also, Jon Otto, who, through Howard Brassner’s gallery efforts, built an extensive Highwaymen collection seemingly overnight; he too has branched out to include Backus in his collection. It is the energies and means of these art fanciers that are taking Florida art to new places and heights. For me, a real groundbreaking measure was seeing Highwaymen art in the setting of a world-class fine arts museum; this occurred last summer when the Museum of Art / Fort Lauderdale mounted the first-ever Highwaymen exhibition in such a venue. They published a great catalog that is only available through the museum’s store. Documentary filmmakers Jack Hambrick and Julia D’Amico each produced films of archival note. Taking the Highwaymen story even further is Red Brick Films’ currently-in-production feature film inspired by the Highwaymen story. Ben Van Hook, the principal producer, is a man of great skill and ability.


A quintessential Highwaymen painting by Willie Daniels with his signature gnarled oak tree.
Collection of Geoff Cook.

Books about Florida arts and artists are being written. There are more Highwaymen books on the horizon, including my third and last one that is about Al Black’s prison murals. A Highwaymen book based on Jon’s collection is in the works. As these join Geoff’s and my books, we all look forward to a plethora of Highwaymen books to come as their art becomes part of the national scene, which I firmly believe it will do because everyone, it seems, has a connection to the Sunshine State. After all, Florida is ingrained in the national psyche as the place to dream and to be.


About the author:
Gary Monroe authored the primary Highwaymen books. These, as well as his other books about Florida art and culture may be viewed on his Website, along with his photography, at www.garymonroe.net.


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