SULPHUR SPRINGS – Artist Robert Butler says he has lived his life by the idea, “you get help when you extend help to others.”
This Saturday,the 70-year-old member of the elite group of Highwaymen artists will exhibit and sell his work at Community Stepping Stones on the Hillsborough River with proceeds helping support the environmental art program for at-risk teens.
Butler, who lives in Lakeland, grew up in Okeechobee where his single mother, Annie Tolifer Butler, picked tomatoes, cleaned motel rooms and worked as a waitress. She and others encouraged him to pursue his talent in painting. In 1968, he began selling those paintings along the roadsides of Florida for $15 each.
Little did Butler know that other African-American landscapes artists, mainly self-taught, also did this. That group of 25 men and one woman have become known as the Highwaymen. Their paintings now sell from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars each.
Butler said his break came in 1976 when Mildred Carlton, wife of Doyle Carlton Jr. of Wauchula, asked him to speak to the Wauchula Woman’s Club and help them with fundraising project.
“She put me in front of the public,” Butler said in a recent interview at Community Stepping Stones at the Mann Wagnon Park. “That really launched my career.”
About the same time, Butler began a project to paint every major river and ecosystem in Florida. He also painted wildlife, unlike most of the other Highwaymen.
A member of the Florida Arts Hall of Fame, he has works in the Florida Capital Building, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Office, Florida House in Washington, D.C., and the Beijing Zoo.
The river and ecosystem project “was a way of trying to get things in front of people and help” them realize changes occurring due to increases in development and population.
“The paintings are a way to see the world I lived in,” Butler said. “I needed to use the God-given abilities to leave a record of that.”
Butler, the father of six boys and three girls, said his children are all artists, trying to do the same as he did for a new generation.
Through his career, as his fame increased, he said he began to reach out more by visiting schools and doing television shows and encouraging others.
“We are all obligated to encourage human development,” Butler said.
Robert Rorebeck of Community Stepping Stones said he heard about Butler’s interest in the less fortunate and worked with local leaders to organize Saturday’s event. He also is working with him for a possible artist-in-residence program.
At the event, Butler will present special paintings to local government officials for the people of Tampa. Tampa Bay History Center curator Rodney Kite‐Powell will lead a river walk to discuss the significance of the river to Tampa. Steve Jerve of NewsChannel 8 will be the event’s emcee.
Butler’s new autobiography will be available and an autographed copy will be given to donors of $150 or more.
Sheila Munoz, the book’s editor, said, “You can see God’s hands on him – with a purpose.”
She added: “He is so focused and has enriched other people’s lives. Painting was the vehicle.”