Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Arts

Highwaymen painted the beauty of old-time Florida

DUNEDIN — Paint 'em fast, sell 'em cheap.

That was the mantra of many of the African-American artists who emerged in the 1950s and speed-painted the serene landscapes and seascapes of the Sunshine State.

Before the oils had dried, many were peddling their wares from the trunks of cars or carting them door-to-door. It was a time of segregation and the artists weren't permitted to sell art in galleries.

Their instantly recognizable works of swaying palms and flowering trees reflected in bodies of water or silhouetted against tropical sunsets often ended up on the walls of motels, restaurants, banks and in doctors' offices.

Decades later, this loose-knit group of 26 artists became known as "the Highwaymen." Now recognized as important contributors to American folk history, their iconic paintings, once considered motel art, have become highly collectible.

An exhibit of 60 Highwaymen paintings is at the Stirling Art Studios and Gallery, a campus of the Dunedin Fine Art Center, through Feb. 2.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, two Highwaymen, Issac Knight and R. A. "Roy" McLendon, will be on hand to paint, answer questions and sell their work.

McLendon, still a painter at age 80, operates a gallery in Vero Beach. When he was young and living in Gifford, he often visited his neighbor, another black man named Harold Newton.

"He was always painting," McLendon said about the man who inspired him and is now considered a founding member of the Highwaymen. "I wanted to do it too, so I taught myself how. I'd get a few done and then take them up and down the east coast (of Florida) and sell them."

Unlike some though, he was more methodical.

"I'd take my time and get a lot of detail," McLendon said. "I wanted it to be really nice."

He'd paint flamboyant Royal Poinciana trees in full bloom or old abandoned boats on moonlit rivers. Creating lovely images of Old Florida was an enjoyable diversion from his other jobs of picking beans or building seawalls, he said.

Most of his paintings went for $35 or $45 back then. Now, some of his works are going for $7,000, maybe more. He can't quite remember.

The Highwaymen exhibition is presented as a companion show to the traveling Smithsonian exhibit "Journey Stories," coming to the Dunedin Historical Museum Jan. 25.

Three collectors — Matthew Samuel from Fort Pierce, Don Ball from Largo and Mark Torrance of Dunedin — made possible this exhibit, "On the Road: Highwaymen from Three Collectors."

"It's a big show," said Ken Hannon, the fine art center's associate executive director. "It's a collection of vividly colored paintings that speaks of both the diversity of style and cohesiveness of the group. They trained each other and you can see it in their techniques."

   
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