Florida Highwaymen Paintings and Prison Murals

by donald dusinberre
From now until January 4th, one exhibition at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens will feature a few different kinds of artistic expression. Florida Highwaymen Paintings and Prison Murals: Al Black and the Florida Highwaymen.
A loose collective of 26 African-American landscape painters, the Florida Highwaymen were self-taught artists who redefined the contemporary art movement in Florida from the 50s through the 80s. Their art isn’t as much about the finished product as their reasons for producing it.
The Highwaymen aesthetic is based upon their motivation and the actions they took to fulfill them. With a natural (yet untrained) talent for painting, selling artwork was a way to make a living while making homes, doctors’ offices and businesses a little more pleasant to visit. As African Americans were outsiders to the art establishment, no gallery would represent them, so they painted furiously fast and sold their work door-to-door. A salesman could sometimes sell 50 – 60 paintings in a single day.
Selling and producing art at such a quick pace meant being efficient and resourceful. Instead of purchasing canvas, they bought 4′ x 8′ sheets of Upson board, a very smooth panel used in the roofing trade, and cut it into 6 pieces. Instead of having their works professionally framed, they painted and textured pieces of crown molding with white or gold paint and framed their own works quickly and cheaply.
Although there’s no way to know exactly how many Highwaymen paintings were made, it is estimated that there are as many as 200,000 paintings in existence. Typically, they sold their paintings for anywhere between $25- $135. Dozens of works are on display at the Cummer, including works by Harold Newton, Willie Daniels, Al Black, Alfred Hair, Livingston Roberts, Sam Newton, Roy McLendon, James Gibson and Mary Ann Carroll.
Al Black is one of the original Highwaymen, having learned to paint while becoming the group’s top salesman. His unique path adds another layer to the Highwayman aesthetic. After being sent to prison in central Florida, Black was quickly recognized as a practicing artist. It was carefully arranged that he would paint his Florida landscapes and seascapes as murals upon the walls and doors of the prison.
Painted on cinderblocks instead of Upson board, Black’s work gained a quality that he never expected- “exclusivity.” For years, no one but guards and inmates were able to view Black’s murals, a much smaller and starkly different audience than the thousands of owners of his other paintings.
While Black has painted more than 90 murals and countless paintings, Gary Monroe has set out to document Black’s murals, but it’s clear that his photos are artistic in their own right. He doesn’t just fill the frame with the mural but allows its surroundings to comment on the need for that mural right where it is.
Take some time to visit the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens this winter, making sure to check out the dozens of original Highwaymen works as well as Gary Monroe’s photographs of Al Black’s murals.