The Highwaymen and Albert Earnest Backus – A Floridian Artist who spent his life paying it forward.
Larry, the Director at The Rumriver Art Center, told me about the Highwaymen, which he had discovered by watching the Antique Roadshow. I thought I would look into it and see what they were about. The Highwaymen were a loose knit group of 26 black artist who lived in the Fort Pierce Florida area. They would make quick paintings of the Florida landscape and then take them along the U. S. Route 1 on the Florida’s Atlantic coast and sell them out of the back of their car. The artists would also sell their paintings to the restaurants and hotels in the area, these were places they could not eat or stay at due to the color of their skin, but they did purchase their paintings. These paintings were sold for $25-$35, now at auction they go for about $10,000. What I discovered is there would not have been any Highwaymen without A.E Backus otherwise known as Bean Backus. I want to share a bit about this man, his art and a few of the highwaymen.
Bean Backus got his nickname from his uncle Reg, who upon seeing him said he looked like a bean. He was born a very tiny and sickly baby in 1906 in Fort Pierce Florida. He was kept home from school as a young child to keep him from getting sick. As a child he received a small tin of watercolor paints and he discovered his talent and love for painting. He was mainly self-taught though while in high
Uncle Reg if he would cover the cost. He attended the following summer as well, though his uncle said he would not be able to pay for it after that year as times were changing and the depression was upon them. Bean told his uncle he would pay him back, but his uncle said to pass it on to others. This became his way of life.
Due to the depression Bean was not able to finish high school and started working as a sign painter and then became the projectionist at the Sunrise Theatre. His boss discovered he could paint so he allowed him to use the projection room as a studio as long as he painted the billboards for the upcoming movies. During this time, he also found himself getting into some trouble with the law. He did not understand the laws of the land. As a child his playmates were the black children of plantation workers. They were kids who just played together and then as they grew up, they were his friends and he would join them in the jazz clubs and then be arrested. He was arrested many times for crossing the racial lines.
Backus paintings were of the dramatic Florida landscapes which he created by applying oil paints to the canvas using a palette knife. He worked in his studio and was known around the community as someone who liked to help others. He had an open-door studio policy; anyone could come in while he was painting.
In 1954 he went to Lincoln High School offering his assistance to painting students. The art teacher Zenobia Jefferson would send her students who were interested in painting his way. Alfred Hair was one of these students, Alfred at age 14 became Beans studio assistant, making frames and then finally getting to learn from the Backus about painting. Alfred took lessons from Backus for 3 years. Alfred would pay 25 cents a lesson or sometimes his sister would clean Backus house for the lesson. Alfred created his own unique style though inspired greatly by the paintings of Backus.
What Alfred Hair noticed was that Backus would work on a painting for weeks and sometimes months and would make $350. Alfred thought that he could create similar landscapes but make them fast and sell them for $35 and make a good living. This was during the time when most jobs for black men were labor intensive and did not pay very well.
Alfred’s would paint dozens of paintings a day and drive down to the beach blasting James Brown to sell his work.
Alfred met Harold Newton while assisting at Bean’s studio. He learned some important things through Harold as well.
In 1955 Harold Newton appeared one day in Bean’s studio. Bean invited him in to have a chat. Harold was a Black artist, at the time he painted religious scenes on black velvet and sold them for $2.50. He intended to establish himself as a successful artist. Harold and Bean became friends, and this marked a changing point in his career. Bean encouraged him to move to landscapes as a subject matter. Along with a new subject matter, Harold gave up black velvet and started painting on Upson board and using house paint and brushes that he purchased from the dime store. He started selling his paintings for $10, which was much higher than the black velvet paintings. Bean did not give him any painting advice; Harold would watch Bean paint and then go home and paint a same scene in about 2 hours. Bean was amazed at his natural talent and photographic memory. Harold realized he couldn’t’t get some of the details with his brushes that Bean got with his palette knife, so he bought himself a palette knife. Harold’s customers preferred the paintings he painted with the palette knife.
Harold would sell his paintings out of the back of his car, he did this because the art galleries would not host black artists. His work became popular and he was able to sell some of his paintings for $75.
What Alfred learned from Harold was a way to sell his paintings out the back of his car. Alfred and Harold started to encourage and inspired other black painters to follow their lead. These artists are known as the Highwaymen (though there was one woman among them). From 1950-1970 the Highwaymen created over 200,000 paintings of the Florida’s diverse landscape. They often sold then the same day they were made diving or biking to various locations.
The one female painter was named Mary Ann Carroll. As a child she had always liked to draw, when she met Harold Newton, she was inspired to take up painting. She was in search of an escape and a way out of poverty. She was described as a “tough cookie”, who could take care of herself, as she went out selling her paintings, to put food on the table for her 7 children. These were dangerous times, but she kept on, as she was making a good living that kept her out of the citrus fields. Here is a couple of her paintings. Her advice to others is “you must believe in yourself, even if no one else does.”
There are 24 other Highwaymen painters I have not touched on here. I have decided to do more research into these painters as I find their stories and their strength to forge a new way to create a living for themselves very fascinating. It is important to know about the history of our country. Art history is a good way to discover some of that history. It is important to learn about the history of all the people of our country as this is how we gain understanding and compassion. Thank you for reading about the Highwaymen and Bean Backus.