They Were the Highwaymen

By: Christopher Follenus

They have been called, “The Last Great American Art Movement of the 20th Century”, and are the subject of a hugely popular Highwaymen exhibition at the Polk Museum of Art.

They were the Highwaymen Artists of Florida

And they sold their work from the trunks of their cars.

From the late 1950s until the 1980s, entrepreneurial African American artists in Florida took to the road. Focusing on landscapes, they would become known as the Highwaymen. Their success and longevity amid the social conditions of their day is just one aspect of their growing popularity.

One of the largest academic exhibitions of their works, drawn entirely from the Woodsby family’s private collection, is currently on display at the museum. “What we try to explore in our exhibition, which features more than 70 works that have not been seen by the public before…, is how these artists found so much fame and renown in Florida – such as audiences are streaming through our galleries – and yet have not really found a place in the textbooks of the grand history of art”, says Dr. Alexander Rich Executive Director and Chief Curator at the museum, Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern in Lakeland. “The fact that we have a group of 27 African-American artists during a time of Jim Crow era deep south, and finding fame, finding customers, and yet somehow not being established in the annals of history.”

Eschewing Social Norms

While most artists focused on galleries and exhibits, due to the lack of traditional opportunities available to them, the Highwaymen took to the road. While they earned their reputation from selling easily accessible artwork from the truck of their cars, they also went from door to door or business to business selling their art, mostly along Florida’s Highway 1. By the 1980s, a shift in public tastes as well as the corporate expansion throughout the state reduced demand.

Guests in a gallery viewing works from the Highwaymen Exhibition

Style of the Highwaymen

While most were self-taught, they relied on instinct and intuition – as well as what sold best. According to Rich, “What we’ve learned from all the people coming through our doors is that people love seeing Florida’s natural beauty…such as works that speak to Florida’s ecosystems and iconography that people love as tourists or as natives.” The art was mostly created on inexpensive Upson board and often framed with crown molding.

The main focus was on color, featuring explosive burnt red orange skies, florescent flowing clouds and windswept beaches.

The Art of the Highwaymen Exhibition work, of Florida lake in wilderness

Experience the Highwaymen Exhibition in Person

This free to the public exhibit at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College runs until May 22 in the Dorothy Jenkins Gallery. Demand for the exhibit was so great that a second gallery was recently opened.

Many of the pieces from the Woodsby family’s private collection have never been shown to the public before.

Hours at the Polk Museum of Art are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free to the public.

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