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Monday, May 21, 2018
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Rare Highwaymen art displayed at Tampa Bay History Center

A rare collection of works showcasing at least one piece of art from each of the 26 Florida Highwaymen opens Saturday for a two-month show at the Tampa Bay History Center.

The artists were African Americans in the Fort Pierce area who sold their colorful landscapes, painted on Upson board, along highways in the 1950s and 1960s. Locals and tourists bought them, framed, for about $25.

Those pieces from those 25 men and one woman, who are in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, go for hundreds or thousands of dollars now.

The exhibit, “ Against All Odds: The Art of the Highwaymen,” is on loan from the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando.

“This is pretty special,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, the History Center's Saunders Foundation Curator of History. “Because of the nature of their work, pieces are spread all over the place.”

The African-American artists — including James Gibson, Harold Newton, Alfred Hair, Mary Ann Carroll, Robert L. Lewis and Robert Butler — were not allowed to show their work in local galleries. So the self-taught painters sold the pieces featuring sunset skies, palm trees, flowering trees, hammocks, rivers and more from the trunks of their cars. They painted fast and furious in an attempt to make a living.

The artists were almost forgotten until the mid-1990s when art collector and critic Jim Fitch dubbed them the “Highwaymen” and brought attention to their work. Since then they have been featured at festivals, in the Florida capitol and selected for a governor's Christmas card. A number have died over the years but some, now in their 70s and nearing 80, still paint.

“We don't do a lot of a shows, but this a way for us to show that art and history have a great connection,” Kite-Powell said.

Also featured in the exhibit is a piece, owned by the history center, by Butler, who died in March.

It is the last piece Butler, a Lakeland resident, completed, Kite-Powell said.

“The Frank E. Duckwall Foundation bought it and gave it to us,” he said.

Butler had appeared in December at a fundraiser for Community Stepping Stones, an art program in Sulphur Springs.

In an interview in conjunction with the event, he told the Tribune: “The paintings are a way to see the world I lived in. I needed to use the God-given abilities to leave a record of that.”

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