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Florida Highwaymen get special event at City Hall

Written by on Thursday, February 15, 2024

Collector of 650 paintings tells how he was drawn in, early in his life.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Feb. 14, 2024

Host: The Florida Highwaymen exhibition was subject to a lecture at City Hall and is then headed to other art venues. WSLR reporter Ramon Lopez was there for a presentation by the collector.

Ramon Lopez: There were 26 of them. 25 black men and one black woman, Mary Ann Carroll. Collectively, they are known as the Highwaymen. These working class, blue-collar Floridians painted with oil — not house paint — throughout the Sunshine State. Twenty-three of their oil paintings are currently on display at Sarasota City Hall, 1565 First Street, thanks to the City of Sarasota Cultural Exhibit and Roger Lightle of Vero Beach, a successful businessman and Highwaymen collector. They can be viewed free of charge.

Attendees at the exhibition

Florida’s Highwaymen were prolific painters who sold their artwork on Florida highways from the trunks of their cars and pickup trucks, starting in the 1950s. This, because they were excluded from art galleries in the Jim Crow South.  The self-taught artists and entrepreneurs mentored one another while they scavenged for materials, such as discarded wallboards for canvasses, and tossed crown molding for picture frames. They created a body of art that expressed the state’s natural beauty: backwoods scenes, palm-lined beaches and river scenes. And the loosely associated African American artists were inducted in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2011, Mary Ann Carroll was honored at the White House by Michelle Obama. 

Many Ann passed in 2019, but six of the 26 Highwaymen are still alive. Their artwork freed them from picking oranges. Most were from Fort Pierce and Vero Beach, but one — Harold Newton — spent time in Sarasota. Mary Ann Carroll, the so-called “First Lady of the Highwaymen,” was a child of sharecroppers. She worked as a maid. But with seven children to feed, she painted to make ends meet. And she braved the back roads of the segregated South to sell her art. Their oil paintings are now collected, and have been exhibited statewide, in Washington, DC and the Big Apple. They are now sought after by collectors, and are a valuable commodity. 

Roger Lightle says the paintings must be shown to the public.

Roger Lightle: What I’ve talked to you about today is really just a brief, surface part of the story. There’s stories within the stories. Each artist has his own stories, and how they got involved, and where they fit in. You know, it’s the American success story you’re looking at. There’s no doubt about it. A Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t make this story up.

Twenty-six individuals starting to paint and then rising to the level where they’re being honored in the Smithsonian and these prominent locations, they’re welcoming them in. That is highly unlikely to have occurred, but it did. I’m shocked when I see it and hear about it. 

Lopez:  Lightle, who owns 650 Highwaymen oil paintings, got hooked on their work early on.

Lightle: I remember seeing them as a child with my parents looking at a house that they were thinking of buying. So I saw these paintings in a residence and I don’t forget it. I remember seeing them, and I was mesmerized by them then.  

I saw the paintings around — did I see paintings of significance around? Not generally — until one evening. I was in Cocoa Beach, I met somebody who was a very key collector, who’s archived 25,000 Highwaymen images, and his name is Tim Jacobs, works for NASA. He had 108 paintings of significance. I saw those paintings that night and I thought, this is not normal; what was created, they were not the typical paintings. 

I left this house at 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock, I got pulled over by the police for speeding. I laid in my bed at home that night, that night, and I couldn’t sleep because of what I had seen.

Lopez:  There will be a second free public art exhibit of Highwaymen paintings at the end of March at the Arts Advocates Gallery in the Crossings at Siesta Key MallCurtis Arnett, a Highwayman, will be there. Meanwhile, a multi-series documentary on the Highwaymen is in the works.

So next time you are at a yard sale, garage sale or estate sale, and you run across a dust-covered oil painting, take a close look at the signature at the bottom of the canvas. It just may be a long-lost Highwaymen original.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.

More information: https://www.sarasotafl.gov/our-city/public-art/cultural-heritage-exhibit/the-highwaymen-exhibit#ad-image-5, and here: https://www.sarasotafl.gov/Home/Components/News/News/3491/16. The Art of Florida’s Highwaymen free exhibit will take place on March 2 and 3, and March 22-24, with lectures, painting demonstration and a chance to speak to Curtis Arnett, one of six living Highwaymen on March 23 at the Arts Advocates Gallery located at the Crossings at Siesta Key Mall. More information on the exhibit is available at: www.artsadvocates.org


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