Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Florida Highwaymen

In the mid 50's down by Fort Pierce, Florida, an amazing thing happened.  A group of unemployed black men got together and started painting pictures and selling them from their cars along the side of the road.

They were self taught, and self-mentoring.  We have heard of enterprising people forming mowing groups, itinerants moving from farm to farm to help pick produce, and many other entrepreneurial endeavors.  But art?   

They started as nine original artists and their ranks swelled to 26 at one point.  The only reason I learned about this group was because one of the originals died a month or so ago.  His obituary was plastered all over the place down here and I was intrigued by the notion of these guys sitting around and deciding to form an art club of sorts.  

Imagine the initial conversation.  These guys are sitting around one day, no money, no prospects, no skills, and bleak futures in a South that was hard on blacks to start with, and out of that came guys who decided to buy whatever materials they could and paint Florida landscapes.

They would end up making about 200,000 paintings that are heavily sought after today.  Their work hangs in corporate offices, banks and museums all over the US.  

Personally, I don't care too much for their stuff.  It is a little florid for me, but it is certainly Florida.  It is too reminiscent of what is called California art:  warehouses of people doing a fast painting of one scene all day.  These then are sold in various venues, often cut-rate but honest in that it is an original oil. 

So here's to the Florida Highwaymen, who broke with their down-and-out brethren and did something truly fantastic.  Not only did they inspire with their paint brushes, but they also serve as a reminder that entrepreneurial spirit is something that begins with a single, simple idea.  

Imagine, a group of unemployed black men in Jim Crow South purchasing boards and oil paints and making a living doing something they had never dreamed of doing.  These guys in their own way did something truly heroic.  

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