Submitted by the Castellani Art Museum
“The Highwaymen: Black Artists of the Florida Coast” – a first-of-its-kind multimedia exhibition in Western New York featuring 21 paintings – is on view at Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University (CAM) through April 28, 2024.
A reception will be held Thursday, Oct. 5, from 4:30-7:30 p.m., commemorating the artistic excellence and creativity of the Highwaymen. Second-generation Highwayman artist Ray McLendon will provide remarks and lead a special exhibition tour. All are welcome to attend by registering at bit.ly/camhighwaymen.
The story of the Highwaymen began in the 1950s during the Jim Crow Era, a period of rigid anti-Black laws and perspectives, mostly enacted in America’s southern states. The original Highwaymen consisted of 25 African-American men and one woman, primarily self-taught artists. They worked in the Fort Pierce area of Florida and were committed to painting natural landscapes of the Florida coast, such as forests, swamps, beaches and sunsets, most of which have been replaced by suburban development. These romanticized scenes were depicted using bright colors and easily found materials.
Despite being barred from museums and art galleries, the Highwaymen asserted their economic independence before and after segregation. These painters found a creative solution to share their work: Florida roadsides. They also sold works door-to-door in Central Florida neighborhoods and at new hotels, restaurants and businesses during the region’s development boom in the 1950s.
With automotive travel booming, these entrepreneurs attracted curious travelers who pulled over to purchase their colorful works. Fast painting was their signature, since producing multiple paintings in one day enabled them to offer their work at affordable prices – as low as $25-$35 each.
The name “Highwaymen'' was coined in a 1993 article by Jim Fitch, former Museum of Florida art and culture curator. He devised the name based on their sales method of traveling up and down the Florida highway to find buyers. He wrote, "Thus was born a movement, a school, a Black, self-taught tradition that I recognize as the beginning of Florida’s residential, regional art tradition.”
According to McLendon, Gary Monore’s first book on the group in 2001, “The Highwaymen: Florida’s African American Landscape Painters,” brought the artists and their movement into the mainstream art world and garnered attention from major art collectors. Today, the Highwaymen have received international recognition for their unique style and business acumen. Their paintings now sell for thousands of dollars and are found in prestigious museum collections nationwide.
Six of the 26 original Highwaymen are living and still practice art, including 92-year-old Roy McLendon, the eldest of the group.
“My dad drives to his studio every day and paints,” said Ray McLendon, 67, who served as his father’s assistant as a child. “I would have to cut his board and crown molding with a utility knife and shellac the wood to make the frame.”
Of the 21 paintings featured in this exhibition, 10 are by Ray McLendon.
“One of the main objectives I’d like to accomplish with this exhibition is to show Black youth that everyone doesn’t need to be a rapper, pro football or basketball player to make it,” he said. “There might be a less flashy opportunity they encounter that will allow them to live better. We want our Black kids to know that we used art as a way out, and they can do the same thing and blaze a trail. You don’t need to be a superstar to be in the Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian.”
“There is much more to be known about the Highwaymen,” CAM Curator Michael J. Beam said. “By interviewing second-generation and legacy participants and encouraging deeper scholarship on this topic, we hope that the Highwaymen artists’ true brilliance is more clearly articulated and becomes honored as a critical part of our nation’s art history.”