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Artist A.E. Backus’ Legacy Lives On Through Exhibition Featuring Works By Florida Highwaymen

In honor of the upcoming exhibit, Kathleen Fredrick, the executive director for The A.E. Backus Museum, shares the unusual bond between one artist and his famous protégés, the Florida Highwaymen.

Albert Ernest

If Florida's seminal landscape painter, Albert Ernest “Bean” Backus, were alive today, he would rather be known as a great humanitarian than as a great painter. Backus, who died in 1990 at the age of 84, felt that his artistic talent was a gift he utilized and developed, while his lifetime of unassuming generosity and quiet social activism was a choice he made.

Backus's artistic and humanitarian legacies, inextricably linked through the American art phenomenon known as the Florida Highwaymen, will be celebrated by the A.E. Backus Museum during its annual Tribute to Backus Exhibition this month from Feb. 17 to March 11. It's the first time this exhibit will not feature paintings by Backus but by his unlikely protégés, the Treasure Coast's African-American outsider artists known as the Florida Highwaymen. The exhibit, “Pass It On—Vintage Paintings by the Original Florida Highwaymen,” will celebrate Backus's artistic influence and unprecedented generosity. Curated by Highwaymen collector Roger Lightle of Vero Beach, the exhibit will showcase the very finest of early Florida Highwaymen paintings, focusing on the stellar works of Harold Newton.

People often wonder why the Highwaymen started in and revolved around Fort Pierce. The answer to that question inevitably leads to the life and work of Backus. Born in 1906 along the banks of the Indian River Lagoon in Fort Pierce, Backus was primarily a self-taught artist. His only formal art training, paid for by his beloved Uncle Reg, consisted of two semesters spent studying graphic design in New York City. Upon his return, Backus attempted to repay his Uncle's generosity. Declining money, Uncle Reg told his nephew to pay him back by “passing it on.”

As his Uncle Reg instructed him to do, Backus passed it on to The Highwaymen and countless other aspiring artists. He was the teacher of the Florida Highwaymen's founder, Alfred Hair, as well as mentor, art critic and benefactor to the original group of painters. Backus's influence upon The Highwaymen is undeniable. If there was no Backus, there would be no Highwaymen.

Well known for his Bohemian lifestyle and open-minded attitude, Backus's studio-home was a gathering place for accomplished and aspiring white and black artists, writers, musicians and simply folks looking for a bit of stimulating conversation. It was to this unprecedented, eclectic environment that in 1950 Zanobia Jefferson, the art teacher at the segregated black high school, confidently introduced her prized pupil, Alfred Hair. From previous visits with Backus, Jefferson knew that he would take Hair under his wing and that Hair could learn much from Backus. While it was scandalous for a white artist to have a black student in his home as a protégé rather than as an employee, Backus cared not for social conventions and came to love Hair as a son.

Bohemian lifestyle

landscape painting

Hair quickly learned the technical aspects of landscape painting and showed great promise. He was a realist and an innovative marketer. Handsome and charismatic, Hair recognized that the social and economic limitations of the 1950s segregated South worked against him. This meant that the gallery representation and available exhibition space would go to an equally talented white artist instead of him. Rather than giving up, Hair innovated a new production and marketing technique for his paintings. As author Catherine Enns observed in her book, The Journey of the Highwaymen, Hair “stepped out of the bounds of art for art's sake and unapologetically entered the marketplace.” Producing paintings in an assembly-line fashion, more as a commodity than a fine-art creation, Hair embraced the door-to-door selling of his paintings. Eventually, Hair employed a crew of friends as commissioned salesmen who set up along the sides of the State's highways—hence the name Florida Highwaymen.

As his Uncle Reg instructed him to do, Backus passed it on to The Highwaymen and countless other aspiring artists.

While Alfred Hair was the catalyst of the loosely associated group of 26 painters—give or take a few depending upon whom you ask, Harold Newton was widely regarded as the most talented and painterly. The more reclusive Newton was not driven for financial success like Hair. Instead he embarked on a life-long effort to emulate the successful compositions and techniques employed by Backus. Many of Newton’s paintings are near replicas of Backus’s paintings.

While other Highwaymen painters created generic glimpses of Florida's landscapes, much like the view from the window of a passing car, Newton's paintings felt more like his mentor's, transporting the viewer to an idyllic location and a specific moment in time. You can almost feel the breeze and hear the mosquitos in a Newton painting. Emulating Backus, who was deeply inspired by the paintings of Claude Monet, Newton explored the effects of light upon a specific scene, painting variations of them repeatedly. Newton's paintings differed greatly from the “fast grass,” hastily rendered paintings of Hair and the charmingly naive paintings of many of the other Highwaymen. For the Florida Highwaymen, painting like Backus was the ultimate goal. By all accounts, Newton most successfully achieved that goal.


Highwaymen paintings

Backus's paintings

The majority of scenes depicted in Highwaymen paintings were templated from Backus's paintings. Frequent visitors to the Backus studio, the aspiring painters employed a keen sense of observation. If a particular landscape was selling for Backus, they copied it. Brilliant Royal Poinciana trees burst forth, wading birds in wetlands and ranchlands, rolling breakers on the beach, gaudy sunsets and quiet sunrises are all images garnered from Backus. Access to Backus's paintings was essential to the Highwaymen's development. Due to racial bigotry, many locations shown in Highwaymen paintings, such as ranches or beaches, were not accessible to the black artists. They saw them in Backus's paintings and went home to paint variations of them.

Enns notes, “You can't look at a Highwaymen and not think of a Backus.” Highwaymen paintings followed a formula that dictated an emphasis on economy of scale, predictable compositions, a limited palette and the repetitive creation of their most successful scenes. What the Highwaymen may have lacked in original themes, they made up for in originality of merchandising. Their roving outsider art movement is unique in American art history and has captured the imagination of virtually all who hear of it.

Always intent upon helping and encouraging the Highwaymen in their commercial endeavors, Backus was generous with his time, suggestions and supplies. In an effort to save on costly supplies, Backus counseled the Highwaymen to use the same cost-cutting tricks he had employed in his early career. He showed them how to paint on Upson board panels rather than canvas and to frame their paintings using molding available at the local lumber yard. Utilizing Backus's suggestions, the Highwaymen were able to mass produce inexpensive, sturdy paintings, capable of withstanding the rigors of stacking—still wet in the trunk of a car—and effective in making their art affordable enough for an average working man to buy several. It was a brilliant production and marketing plan, which yielded an estimated 100,000 or more paintings.


“Pass it on” Exhibit

Feb. 19 — Exhibit Opening Reception

Feb. 19-21 — Exhibit Opening Weekend featuring a tent sale of vintage Highwaymen paintings for purchase

Feb. 20 — Lectures and Tours of the exhibit while the City of Fort Pierce launches its new Florida Highwaymen Heritage Trail with a ribbon cutting, guided tours of the newest historical attraction, a festival and art exhibition featuring the living Highwaymen and their newer paintings available for purchase.