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The Highwaymen: Segregation And Speed-Painting In The Sunshine State

In the 1960s and '70s, if you were in a doctor's office, or a funeral home, or a motel in Florida, chances are a landscape painting hung on the wall. Palms arching over the water, or moonlight on an inlet. Tens of thousands of paintings like this were created by a group of self-taught African-American artists, concentrated in Fort Pierce, Fla.

The Highwaymen, as they're called, didn't earn that nickname until the 1990s, but it refers to their early days: Following the years of Jim Crow segregation, they churned out lush oil landscapes four and five at a time, and sold them from their cars along Route 1 — often before the paint had even dried. After all, they weren't allowed in galleries.

Those paintings, which once sold for $25, now go for thousands, and owners include Michelle Obama, Shaquille O'Neal and Jeb Bush. But as the reputation of The Highwaymen has grown, so has something else: tension on their native turf.

Gary Monroe, professor and author of The Highwaymen, Florida's African-American Landscape Artists, counts 26 original Highwaymen. That's how many were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004 — 18 of whom are still living.

Mary Ann Carroll, 71, is one of them — a tall, formidable woman who keeps a Bible handy. She's a pastor, and to this day, the only female painter of the group.

As a young woman, Carroll picked citrus and cotton, and had seven children to raise on her own. Like many of The Highwaymen, she got her start because she needed the money.

Although she paints quickly, she says she puts her heart into every canvas: "It might just be a drop of water, you know? But in my mind, I'm working on a masterpiece."

"Some of them are really horrible, ugly paintings," says Kathleen Fredericks, executive director of the A.E. Backus Gallery and Museum in Fort Pierce. Her attitude stems from a belief that The Highwaymen owe an unacknowledged debt to the work of regional painter A.E. "Beanie" Backus.

Born in Fort Pierce in 1906, Backus painted romantically, masterfully, inspired by Florida's wild coastal beauty. He was the first native Floridian to paint Florida year-round, capturing the subtle way the seasons changed, the gusts of wind that came off the ocean and curved the palm trees like sabers arching over the water.

He was exceptional in other ways, too. Jim Crow was in force in Fort Pierce, which was, in his youth, literally segregated by train tracks and was the site of Ku Klux Klan marches. And yet Backus kept his studio doors open to anyone of color, and everyone came.

He gave jobs to students like Alfred Hair, a young, black aspiring artist whose art teacher took him to the Backus studio on a field trip in the 1960s. Hair started building canvases for Backus, and was soon painting on his own. A smart man in a hurry to make money, he took the landscape techniques and reworked them, painting faster and faster; by today's standards, they went viral.

Fast, cheap and appealing: That would become the business strategy behind the whole Highwaymen enterprise — and it did become an enterprise. Hair wasn't the only painter of his kind. Harold Newton had figured it out. So had James Gibson.

Fredericks would also hang out at Backus' studio. And today, she defends his reputation fiercely, believing The Highwaymen have made cheap reproductions of the paintings that hang in her gallery. "There's a reason why they were viewed as motel art," Fredericks says.

Her words hint at a broader divide in Fort Pierce. Not just an art spat, but perhaps vestigial racial tension from Jim Crow to the present. Fort Pierce recognizes The Highwaymen, but doesn't seem to know how to include them. One particular sore point is a monument that was built in their honor: The commission went to a white artist from Miami.

"We had a struggle, and we still have a struggle here in St. Lucie County, kid you not," says Mary Ann Carroll.

A festival the Backus museum gave The Highwaymen in recent years devolved into acrimony and accusations. Yet nearly everyone says The Highwaymen and Backus are intertwined. So where is the spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness that everyone remembers from Beanie Backus' home studio?

The Highwaymen don't all tell their story the same way, see it the same way, or paint their own history in the same hues. But Mary Ann Carroll says no matter what, she knows her life is better for having been an artist.

"My life," she says, "no matter how bad it might have been, I took joy out of it. I took the bad and reframed it. You know like you take a bad painting and put it in a beautiful frame? It makes a difference."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In the 1960s and '70s, if you were in Florida at, say, a doctor's office or a motel, chances are you'd see a painting on the wall of palms arching over the ocean or moonlight on an inlet. Tens of thousands of paintings like that were created by The Highwaymen, a group of African-American artists based in Fort Pierce, Florida. Today, their works are highly sought after. Michelle Obama and Jeb Bush own them.

But NPR's Jacki Lyden reports that The Highwaymen's success has created tensions on their home turf concerning race, money, and the meaning of art.

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

A little white pillar with hand-painted lettering tells you, outside her modest home, what Mary Ann Carroll does and has been doing for decades: Mary A. Carroll, Artist. She started here in her carport.

MARY ANN CARROLL: And I'd take about 10 boards at a time and I'd paint - sometimes I paint all during the night. And some of the people would get up and go into work the next morning, I'd still be out there painting.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: A tall, formidable 71-year-old who keeps a Bible handy, she's really a Highwaywoman who paints billowing trees that fill the frame.

CARROLL: There's a jacaranda, that lavender one, golden trumpet tree; yellow, the tabebuia is yellow. And I don't know if there's another. I think it's three different yellow trees.

LYDEN: Carroll was one of the young African-Americans who started painting in Fort Pierce in '60s. To this day, she's the only female member of the group. She was young, divorced, with seven kids. She'd picked cotton and oranges, mowed lawns, done carpentry. And then one day, she saw a black man painting those beautiful scenes and her eyes fell on his car.

CARROLL: Flames print on the side, on the fender. Then he looked in the back and showed me he had a painting in there. I guess to prove that he was an artist. And so, I said will you show me. He tacked me up a little 18-by-24 board. And so, when I got through it looked all right but it was just naked. So what he did, he put two palm trees in it. And I sold a painting. I don't know where I sold it, don't remember how much I sold it for.

LYDEN: The paintings were cheap - 25 bucks or less. The Highwaymen had stumbled on something and they went, by today's standards, viral.

CARROLL: People started going after these paintings like wildfire.

GARY MONROE: They had no rules, no dues, no organization - nothing.

LYDEN: Gary Monroe is a biographer and historian of The Highwayman.

MONROE: It was just sort of this spontaneous combustion of these guys came together at night. And each of them working individually under big trees with light bulbs dangling and beer flowing and barbecues aflame, and socializing with young women, knocking out these paintings. And framing them and taking them on the road to sell the next morning, 10, 12, 20 at a time. And it seemed to work just magically.

LYDEN: By the time Monroe and others came along in the '90s, the painters had all but stopped. You could find these pictures at yard sales. And Monroe, a yard sale fanatic and documentary photographer, played a leading role in their rediscovery. He published the first book on them in 2001, identifying 26 original painters, 18 of whom are still alive.

JAMES GIBSON: This the mangroves.

LYDEN: One of the most prolific is artist James Gibson. We caught up with him in a park, where he pulled the paintings out of the back of his Cadillac Escalade.

GIBSON: And this, that's the sunset. You get all the brilliant colors, bright orange, yellow. And when you get cold, you look at these colors and warm you up, mentally.

LYDEN: If you want yellow, Gibson will paint for you in yellow, or blue or orange. It'll cost you though - thousands. Stephen Spielberg and Shaquille O'Neill own Gibson paintings, as do many others.

But The Highwaymen weren't the first to paint these Indian River vistas, as Gibson himself would say. The first was an artist named A.E. Beanie Backus, born in Fort Pierce in 1906. And at a time when segregation was the norm, Backus opened to his home to one and all. He taught the founder of The Highwaymen group and encouraged others, including James Gibson.

GIBSON: Mr. Backus was a famous white artist. At this particular time, his door was open to anybody who was interested in art - black, whatever, white, anybody. And if you're interested, he'll teach you.

LYDEN: The Highwaymen reinvented the Backus landscape, painting with a palette knife not a brush, on drywall not canvass. And fast, of course. The Highwaymen would come to Backus himself to get his advice.

Mary Ann Carroll.

CARROLL: I went down there one time and I took a couple of paintings for him to cue them up for me and tell me what was wrong. And he said, oh, that's nice, that's nice. But he never told me I need to put a limb here, a piece of grass there, or bird. He never said anything like that. He just said it was nice. And so, I took for granted that it was nice.

LYDEN: Back then, they were in a different leagues. Backus was considered the dean of the Florida Landscape School, and had commissions years ahead: wealthy patrons, yacht club, banks. The Highwaymen hit the tourist trade on U.S. 1. Now, art world demand has them in competition. There are those who say that The Highwaymen have overstepped, that it should be Backus's vision that predominates in the old, unblemished Florida landscape of savannah, ocean and cypress.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ALARM)

BUD ALTO ADAMS: Come here and I'll show you something.

LYDEN: All right.

It all goes back to the land. One of Backus' favorite places to paint is a spectacular ranch, virtually unspoiled, long stretches of grassland, punctuated with islands of scrubs and scruffy pines.

Wow. Oh, my gosh. Bud, it's just achingly beautiful. This is like a Beanie Backus painting come to life.

(LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: My backyard is hard to beat.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Eighty-year-old Bud Alto Adams has a 17,000 acre spread, full of the views Backus loved to paint; from dappled groves to luminous thunderheads.

ADAMS: He was a faithful painter of Florida. He did not invent pink clouds. If you saw a pink cloud, it was really a pink cloud.

LYDEN: Beanie Backus's ashes are scattered on this ranch. He died in 1990.

ADAMS: Beanie was a fixture in Fort Pierce. He was absolutely unselfish and too good to take care of himself, really.

LYDEN: Beanie Backus was addicted to rum and everyone knew why: to take his mind off the death of his young wife. Some of his most loyal pupils feel The Highwaymen have absconded with the master's vision.

Jackie Schindehette was with him on the day he died.

JACKIE SCHINDEHETTE: I really do feel strongly that Backus is not better known. And it is because there is nobody out there shouting his name like The Highwaymen.

LYDEN: The Highwaymen have lots of followers who enjoy their breezy style. And even though Mary Ann Carroll paints quickly, she still puts her heart into every canvas.

CARROLL: In my mind, I'm working on a masterpiece. It might just be a drop of water. You never know. But in my mind, I'm working on a masterpiece.

KATHLEEN FREDERICK: Some of them are really horrible, ugly paintings.

LYDEN: Kathleen Fredericks is the executive director of the Backus Museum and Gallery, one of the major cultural institutions in Fort Pierce.

FREDERICK: The Highwaymen paintings need their story to carry them forward. Viewed naked, so to speak, the vast majority of people would be taken aback. There's a reason that they were viewed as motel art.

LYDEN: Once, as a member of the young Backus brats gang, Kathleen Fredericks watched Backus paint. Now, she's watching as his legacy is overshadowed by The Highwaymen.

FREDERICK: They couldn't go out on the Adams Ranch and paint paintings on the Adams Ranch. They'd have been run off and shot. So a lot of those images were conceived of because they came to Backus's studio and they said, oh, ponsienna trees. That - look, he's selling a lot of those; palm trees, these ranch scenes.

LYDEN: Inflammatory words that hint at a broader divide in Fort Pierce. Not just an art spat, but perhaps vestigial racial tension from Jim Crow to the present. Fort Pierce recognizes The Highwaymen, but it doesn't seem to know how to include them. A particular sore point is a monument put up to honor them. The commission went to a white artist from Miami.

Again, artist Mary Ann Carroll.

CARROLL: But we had a struggle and there's still have a struggle here in St. Lucie County. Kid you not. And, rather like the Bible said, a prophet is not without honor except in his own home town.

LYDEN: A festival the Backus Museum gave the Highwaymen devolved into acrimony and accusations. So where is the spirit of tolerance and inclusivity that everyone remembers from Beanie Backus's home studio?

CARROLL: I mean, I can tell you I love you. You, shake your hand, hug your neck. But deep within am I telling the truth? It's going to show.

LYDEN: Recently, The Highwaymen have unified, forming a nonprofit group to protect their interests. They're a business now and others have eagerly been exploiting the brand. White collectors dominate the market, while The Highwaymen travel to art festivals around the state. In other ways, though, The Highwaymen have splintered, seemingly more interested in their individual careers. While some, like James Gibson, have opened their own small galleries, others live vicariously.

As for Mary Ann Carroll, You can still catch her at the festivals with a brush in her hand. But she's retreated. Her passion now is a tiny church she's created at the edge of town. We asked her to take us there the night of a Biblical deluge and couldn't even tell where we were.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY RAINS)

LYDEN: I got to say, I think we're at a - mainly, these looks like storage unit. Actually, it's three storage units, knocked together to make space for her congregation of grands and great-grands. Mary Ann has painted the room in vibrant colors and the walls echo as she belts out a verse.

MARY ANN CARROLL: According to the glorious gospel of a blessed God, which was committed to our trust...

LYDEN: God knows the Highwaymen don't all tell their stories the same way, see it the same way or paint it in the same hues. But Mary Ann Carroll says no matter what she's better off for having been a painter.

CARROLL: I took the bad and reframed it. No, like you take a bad painting and put it in a beautiful frame. It makes a difference.

LYDEN: And that transformation is the story of art and of young black painters who once drove up and down Florida's U.S. 1 selling wet-to-the-touch landscapes out of the trunks of their cars, shining like the American dream. Jacki Lyden, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can catch the final part of Jacki Lyden's story about the Florida Highwaymen painters tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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