1. Visual Arts

Famed Florida Highwayman stages benefit for Community Stepping Stones

Robert Butler, 70, is preparing for Saturday’s art exhibit benefit at Community Stepping Stones. One of the noted Florida Highwaymen, the artist is committed to sharing his passion with a new generation.
Robert Butler, 70, is preparing for Saturday’s art exhibit benefit at Community Stepping Stones. One of the noted Florida Highwaymen, the artist is committed to sharing his passion with a new generation.
Published Dec. 11, 2013

TAMPA — Robert Butler, 70, sat next to a Folgers can full of paintbrushes, sipping his mint tea, surrounded by paintings crafted by him and his children.

One depicts a teacher with her students in front of a U.S. flag and another captures the image of a boy dressed in overalls, working over a wooden table.

The majority of the artwork, however, shared the same theme, what propelled Butler to where he is today: Florida landscapes.

"Most people of my type are born with that ability," Butler said last week. "I didn't need to train. I have a natural inclination to drawing nature, especially since I grew up in a rural town."

A dock leading to a wooden swing over a lake, a forest with the sun shining through the pine trees and a deer prancing through the grass, were just a few of the landscapes. Some were taken from Butler's memories and others from his imagination, but they were all created with his keen eye for the color palette.

Now Butler brings his expertise and artistic talents to Community Stepping Stones to share with a new generation of artists. On Saturday, Butler will host a Holiday Art Benefit at Community Stepping Stones to raise money for the nonprofit organization's art programs for at-risk teens.

Butler will exhibit and sell his work on the Community Stepping Stones campus located in historic Mann-Wagnon Park in Sulphur Springs.

"It's what I have been doing all of my life," he said about the benefit.

Community Stepping Stones executive director Sigrid Tidmore likens Butler's involvement to the arrival of a legendary basketball star.

"He's the Magic Johnson of naturalist painters," Tidmore said. "When I tell young people they are going to learn science by learning to paint, they think I'm kidding — until they meet Robert Butler. Mr. Butler is the kind of hero aspiring teen artists at Community Stepping Stones can embrace as a role model."

Butler will be able to share more than tips about how to develop as an artist and the science behind Florida's flora and fauna. The artist, who moved to Okeechobee at the age of 4, also can detail how he went from aspiring painter to accomplished artist.

Though it was clear Butler was an artist, he tried to take the "normal route" in 1964 and became a hospital orderly.

"One day when I was working in the West Side I looked out at the sunset and wanted to paint it so badly," Butler said. "I turned my face away from the window and that was when I knew I had to make a choice, was I going to work or become a painter?"

Butler quit the hospital but not his attempt at a normal life. He moved to Washington, D.C., where his brother lived, and worked for a press company, but when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968 and chaos broke out in the city, he decided to move back to Okeechobee.

"There was no way I was going back to a job," Butler said of his epiphany.

He sold paintings from a roadside stand while raising a family. Just two years later, with no training, he had his first gallery show.

"That changed me forever. I began studying James Audubon and was determined to document every ecosystem and river in Florida because they were disappearing."

Butler had found his passion and would soon find a group of artists who also shared his enthusiasm. The organization of men who traveled roads, selling their Florida landscape paintings would become the Florida Highwaymen.

The group of African-American men are well known, starring in books and films, and Butler serves as one of their leaders. He went from traveling the Florida highways to traveling the world, from Africa to Amsterdam. Now, not only is he a leader among artists, but among fundraisers as well. Butler is a member of the Florida Arts Hall of Fame. He has major canvases in some of Florida's most prestigious homes as well as buildings such as the Florida Capitol and the Beijing Zoo.

Butler now lives in Lakeland and when a friend brought him over to visit Community Stepping Stones, he immediately wanted to reach out to help the kids. He has offered to do workshops and even to set up a Florida Highwaymen Artist-in-Residence program on the campus, which sits on the banks of Hillsborough River.

"I start with the sky, then think, 'Where am I in Florida?' " Butler said. "I go through the catalog of landscapes in my head and I can go anywhere I want. I know and have known no one is going to be able to save all the beauty."

But his paintings are a start with their bright palette and paint strokes that create a picturelike quality.

"It is great to have someone of his stature who inspires students and will be a mentor," Tidmore said.

Arielle Waldman can be reached at