Art as survival — Against All Odds: The Art of the Highwaymen at Tampa Bay History Center

These landscapes and their creators speak volumes about Florida's complex history.

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click to enlarge MEDITATIVE: Work by James Gibson of the Highwaymen. - Tampa Bay History Center
Tampa Bay History Center
MEDITATIVE: Work by James Gibson of the Highwaymen.

Against All Odds: The Art of the Highwaymen
, is only up at Tampa Bay History Center for one more week. It’s a collection of paintings that defy expectations, and there’s an amazing story behind them.

In the 1950s, the 26 African-American painters now known as the Highwaymen created their own art industry. They taught themselves to paint, using cheap construction materials and selling their work door-to-door, out of the trunks of their cars, and by the side of the road. A big part of the interest in the Highwaymen group, since they were rediscovered (and named) in the 1990s, has been rooted in the striking drama of a group of men, and one woman, who managed to make their livings as artists in the face of an entire society that expected them to spend their lives as citrus pickers.

The story makes it tempting to give the art itself short shrift, and at first glance it can seem unremarkable. The Highwaymen’s style was necessarily practical and commercial — this was art as survival. They painted landscapes, both because they were easy to sell to tourists and businesses, and because they could be executed very quickly, primarily with broad strokes of a palette knife rather than a brush. Their style has, unfortunately, been carried to the present day by imitators whose work is mostly easily dismissed as commercial kitsch.

click to enlarge WINDSWEPT: Mary Ann Carroll, the sole female member of the Highwaymen. - Tampa Bay History Center
Tampa Bay History Center
WINDSWEPT: Mary Ann Carroll, the sole female member of the Highwaymen.

But there’s much more than that on these canvases (or, most of the time, Upson-brand construction boards). The Highwaymen’s most interesting paintings, like the piece by Willie Daniels that stands at the entrance to the Tampa Bay History Center’s current exhibition, are as stark as they are beautiful. Give them their space, and you’ll see that their beach rollers are chaotic, their trees looming, and their sunsets more otherworldly than saccharine.

It’s tempting to infer a message from the mix of strangeness and splendor. Two-thirds of the paintings in the exhibit feature one or two small white egrets perched in the middle ground. Surrounded by lonely, moss-covered trees, towering cloud banks and deep shadows, those egrets can evoke the heartbreak of great beauty, the loneliness of witnessing the ineffable, and, perhaps, a consciousness of danger just out of sight. That mix of awe and anxiety can’t be too far off from the experience of living under constant repression in what was then the most prosperous society in history.

Unfortunately, this exhibit doesn’t help a viewer get much beyond speculation in understanding the Highwaymen’s personal or artistic motivations. There’s a bit of historical context, but almost no biographical information about the artists themselves. Amazingly, the paintings aren’t dated or titled, despite the fact that the Highwaymen's careers spanned many decades and their pre-1990s work is considered their most important. Eighteen of the 26 Highwaymen are still alive — in fact, many still paint. We only recently lost Lakeland's Robert Butler, who until his death in March was still an active contributor to the arts and a patron of programs like Community Stepping Stones. That loss should be an incitement to showcase that stories of the Highwaymen as people, not just myths.

That aside, the exhibit is a must-see for anyone who cares about Florida’s unique legacy and culture. It’s only the second time that all 26 Highwaymen have been exhibited side by side, showcasing the surprising stylistic breadth of a group often presumed to be indistinguishable from one another. And though it rightly focuses on landscapes, there are tastes here and there of figural and social scenes. Catch it before it closes on Aug. 17.

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