PAINTING BY EARL BARBER

A HIGHWAYMEN,
To be or not to be,
that's the question


by Jim Fitch

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 2005

This article is about artists who want to be recognized as Highwaymen, those who donít want to be labeled as Highwaymen, and one African American who probably should receive recognition as one of the group. I call him the "lost Highwayman."

If youíve checked out the listings on e-Bay lately you know that there are a lot of folks who want to be Highwaymen. There are listings for "Highwayman style", "Highwayman influenced", and paintings being offered by sons and daughters of Highwaymen. I guess they would be called second generation Highwaymen.

When Gary Monroe began to research his book about the artists we met occasionally to compare notes. We both realized that things would undoubtedly get crazy as the myth makers and wannabees got involved. That was inevitable. But...,sorry you aspiring artists, but there are no second generation Highwaymen. People can call their work Highwayman style if they like and even take advantage of the marketing benefits of the Highwaymen phenomenon but they canít be a Highwayman unless they are identified as such in Gary Monroeís book (one possible exception is noted at the end of this article). Gary did extensive interviews and investigating before going to press and until evidence to the contrary is uncovered the list included in his book is closed.

Sunset, Earl Barber

SoÖ, we have plenty of wannabees. Strangely enough we also have donít wannabees.

You can see those listings on the internet under "Not a Highwayman" and "Highwayman Not". I can understand why some folks wouldnít want to be identified with the Highwaymen because they consider them to be "artists of a lesser god". What I donít understand is why a legitimate, identified Highwayman would deny the affiliation.

When I first sensed that there was a fascinating story behind these artists and coined the name "Highwaymen", I traveled to the Fort Pierce area often to buy paintings and talk with as many of the artists as I could. My first contact was with the owner of a small book shop on U.S.1 who had some paintings by local black artists for sale. She put me in touch with Charles Walker, a black artist who specialized in wildlife art rather than landscapes. As I talked with Charles about wanting to meet the other African American artists who all seemed to be located in and around Fort Pierce he went to great lengths to let me know that he was not part of that group. He definitely didnít want to be associated with them. Even today, although Charles shares many of the characteristics of the Highwaymen artists, he remains an outsider. He did offer to help me meet Livingston Roberts but after three failed appointments I gave up.

Oaks On Left

Another "Highwaymen not" is Sam Newton. Even though Sam can easily be classified as a typical Highwayman, he claims no connection with the group. At the same time he takes full advantage of all the visibility the group has generated to sell his own art.

My wife and I happened to be at an antique shop in Melbourne one day when Sam drove up. The shop owner introduced us and Sam said "Oh yeah! Youíre the guy whoís writing all that bum dope about us artists." Sensing an opportunity, I asked him to give me the real story. The first thing he did was try and convince me that he was not part of any group and that he was an independent artist doing his own thing in his own way. At that point, I thought it best to change the subject so I asked him if he had any paintings for sale. He said he did and we walked over to his Cadillac. He opened the trunk and sold me two paintings. One was by his brother Harold. I thought it best not to mention the irony in this transaction. You canít convince Sam that he is a Highwayman.

Harold Newtonís sister is also a naysayer. She insists that her brother, now deceased and caring less, was not a "Highwayman". When she advertises her wares for sale on e-Bay she uses the term "Highwayman not".

James Gibson takes the middle of the road. He maintains his independence but doesnít deny being affiliated with the group. I met James at a gallery event in Fort Pierce one evening. Because I had taken some flak about the name "Highwaymen" I decided to ask James how he felt about the label. His reply was classic, he said "Mr. Fitch, Iím a survivor." meaning that he didnít care what you called him, just buy his paintings.

Earl Barber
Actually, most of the artists appreciate the recognition. After toiling for many years in obscurity it is well deserved. Being inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame didnít hurt either.

Some of the artists who see an opportunity for advancing their careers have formed an organization called Highwaymen Artists L.L.C.. The organizer is Robert Butler, a Highwayman who knows the benefits found in the philosophical quote "carpe diem" (seize the day). His group has partnered with an educational institution and private business to enhance environmental awareness via their art and to promote the arts as a career opportunity to minorities.

Last but hopefully not least is the case of Earl Barber, the "lost Highwayman". Earl was born in Lawtey, Florida, lived and taught school in Gifford, and palled around with Harold Newton and the Buckner brothers. He also painted Florida landscapes. In the early 70ís he moved back to Lawtey and supported his family by continuing to paint and with whatever odd jobs came along. Recently he had occasion to travel to Jacksonville to buy picture frames. The frame dealer asked him if he was a Highwayman and Earl replied, "Whatís a Highwayman?" As strange as it seems, Earl had never heard about the Highwayman story and had no idea that his old friends had been identified as the beginning of Floridaís contemporary art tradition.

The dealer put him in touch with me, we talked on the phone (I was skeptical), and arranged to meet. I asked Earl to bring some of his older paintings and any biographical information he had about his life as an artist. The paintings he brought were on Upson board that had been primed with shellac, framed with carpenters moulding, and unmistakably the work of a Highwayman.

I do believe that Earl deserves to be considered as one of the group of black artists now known as the Highwaymen. It remains to be seen what the collectors and dealers think.


About the author:
Jim Fitch is the Curator at the South Florida Community College Museum of Florida Art and Culture (MOFAC) in Avon Park. This is the fourth article about the Highwaymen that he has written for Antiques and Art Around Florida. The Museum maintains a permanent exhibit of Highwaymen paintings and is open to the public Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, 12:30 to 4:30 P.M. Private tours and Highwaymen lectures can be arranged by appointment, call 863-784-7240. You may also visit the Museumís website at www.mofac.com


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