It is Spring here in Maine, and believe it or not, the snow on the ground just melted a week ago. The rain season is taking over, and while the weather is warmer now, there is still a lot to be desired. In the meantime, we are dreaming of lazy days on the beach and sunny weather.
One positive aspect of Maine winters is that we are encouraged to explore warmer climates when possible. On a recent trip to Florida, we had the opportunity to meet Roy A. McLendon, Jr. We even returned home with one of his vibrant paintings.
During our visit, Roy welcomed us into his studio, and we spent some time chatting with him about his work and life. He learned how to paint from his father, Roy McClendon, Senior, who was one of the original Highwaymen artists. We were familiar with the Highwaymen from the documentary, The Highwaymen: Legends of the Road, and were thrilled to learn more from Roy firsthand.
The History of the Florida Highwaymen
The Florida Highwaymen were a group of twenty-six self-taught artists of color who worked in Florida during the early 1950s through the 1980s. Collectively, their body of work consists of over 200,000 landscape paintings. The paintings depict unusually bright and colorful scenes of Florida beaches, trees, sunsets, and other natural settings. The beautiful poinciana tree is featured in many of these paintings, often appearing in a shocking red or purple color.
The artists banded together as a group and supported each other during a difficult time full of racial barriers. As artists of color, they were not permitted to show their work in galleries during Jim Crow segregation. Instead, they worked out of their homes and then traveled along Highway 1 selling their art to offices, motels, and tourists.
Without access to expensive art materials, the artists used their creativity to find cheaper alternatives, such as Upson board (a roof sheeting product) for canvas and crown molding for frames.
Alfred Hair was considered the original Highwayman. Hair studied under an established artist by the name of A.E. Backus. Hair realized that he could make a living as an artist, and encouraged several of his friends to start painting. Backus served as a mentor for several of the young artists and welcomed them into his studio.
Alfred Hair passed away in 1970, and the movement began to lose its force without his leadership. Interest in Highwaymen art resurfaced in the mid-1990s due to the work of art historian Jim Fitch. Fitch coined the term “Highwaymen” and began to promote the work.
In 2004, the artists were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. There are still a handful of artists working in this style today. The Highwaymen are considered an important part of Florida’s culture and have received international recognition through exhibitions and publications.