MONTREAL – They were known as the Florida Highwaymen – a group of 26 African-American landscape painters who made a living selling art from their cars in the 1950s.
Their story captured the imagination of Ottawa art collector Tony Hayton some 15 years ago when he was browsing for Florida landscape paintings online and an attractive beach scene caught his eye.
He began to research the painting’s history and became “instantly hooked” by the story of the group of black painters from Fort Pierce, Fla., who defied social convention by selling art as an alternative to working in Florida’s citrus groves.
“This is like the Group of Seven, but instead of seven white guys mentoring each other and painting the wilds of Canada, this is 26 black artists painting the wilds of Florida, also mentoring each other,” Hayton remembers thinking at the time.
“I thought, ‘I like this story much better.’”
Hayton began actively collecting the group’s paintings. Some 35 of the 80 he owns are currently on display at the Montreal Art Centre through May 29, following an initial showing in Ottawa earlier this year.
Because most art galleries in the 1950s and ‘60s wouldn’t accept work by black artists, the highwaymen – 25 men and one woman, Mary Ann Carroll – sold their work door-to-door or out of the backs of their cars for between $10 and $30 apiece.
To save money, they painted on masonry board, using window mouldings as frames.
They painted both independently and together to produce a vast body of work – some 250,000 pieces in all, according to Hayton.
He has spent the last decade exhibiting his collection in the United States in order to raise awareness of a lesser-known chapter of American history.
The paintings are appearing in Canada thanks to a meeting between Hayton and Vicki Heyman, an art aficionado and the wife of Bruce Heyman, the U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Vicki Heyman, who often works to facilitate cross-border artistic exhanges, says the highwaymen’s stories promote discussion of universal issues such as social justice, race, environment and identity.
She believes the paintings constitute an art movement, although “not the kind of art movement the art society would necessarily accept.”
The Montreal exhibit also includes small, round-framed portraits of each of the 26 created by Ottawa artist Peter Shmelzer.
The backgrounds are gold, in order to represent the “living treasure” the highwaymen represent, Heyman said.
She says it’s important to remember them now, while 14 of the 26 are still alive.
Hayton believes that, as a Canadian, he could view the art with “a different objectivity” from those who had grown up with it.
That, he believes, allowed him to quickly recognize the importance of the story.
“I realized this was about history, and African-American history at a certain time and place,” he said. “This is a story that needs to be told.”