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Highwayman Curtis Arnett Visits Sarasota Exhibition

Written by on Saturday, March 30, 2024

Joining him was the son of another Highwayman.


By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Mar. 27, 2024

Host: One of the last surviving members of the Florida Highwaymen was in town this weekend. Ramon Lopez was there to report about this group of painters and their exhibition in Sarasota.

Ramon Lopez: The Highwaymen,  a group of 26 artists — 25 black men and one black woman, Mary Ann Carroll. These working class, blue-collar Floridians painted landscapes throughout the Sunshine State in the 1950s.  Their artwork freed them from picking oranges. Most were from the Fort Pierce area.

The Florida Highwaymen were prolific painters who sold their artwork on Florida highways and back roads from the trunks of their cars. This, because they were excluded from exhibiting in art galleries in the Jim Crow South. Two-dozen of their oil and acrylic paintings are currently on display at Sarasota City Hall, 1565 1st Street, thanks to Roger Lightle of Vero Beach, a successful businessman and Highwaymen art collector. He has picked up 650 Highwaymen oil paintings over the years. The paintings are now sought after by collectors, and they have been exhibited across Florida and nationwide. Lightle is doing all he can to get the Highwaymen story before the public.

Roger Lightle: A story that should be heard. These positive stories should be heard about, and shared with others. And look what they’ve been able to do. They created paintings that will be viewed for generations to come. I have no doubt that will occur. It’s a story that I don’t believe a Hollywood screenwriter could create. It encompasses so many things. You have an era of time, the 50s, when this started. This story has really kind of had a lid on it.

RL: The self-taught artists and entrepreneurs scavenged for materials — such as discarded wallboard for canvasses, and tossed crown molding for picture frames — to create a body of art that captured the state’s natural beauty. They were inducted in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004. Only five of the 26 Highwaymen are still alive, with Roy McLendon Sr. passing away in early March at 91.

Roy McLendon Jr.: He was a real mild man, real quiet, and I got a lot of that from him. 

Roy McLendon Jr.

RL: Arts Advocates this month exhibited and offered for sale 60 Florida Highwaymen paintings in the Arts Advocates Gallery in the Crossings at Siesta Key Mall. Florida Highwayman Curtis Arnett was there on March 23rd to sell a handful of his paintings and tell stories.  So was accomplished artist Roy McLendon Jr., who spoke of his father while demonstrating his painting techniques. As a teen, he painted alongside his father.

RMJ: Yeah, when I started painting this was probably when I was probably eight years old. And I appreciate having the abilities to go and work with my father as I did in my early age.  

RL: At 73, Curtis Arnett, is the youngest surviving Highwayman.

Curtis Arnett: I used to draw,  and I just started drawing, and one year my mother asked me, “Well, what do you want for Christmas?” And I said, “A paint set.” So she bought me a watercolor set. And I’m like, “Oh, thanks.”  And I used to cut up pieces of cardboard box, and paint Lois Lane and Clark Kent out of the comic books. That’s the first thing that I started painting. And then I went from that.  And then I start painting, kind of like, everything I saw. I would draw it and then I would paint it. And that’s kind of how I got started. The first painting that I sold  was a 12 by 16.  And I made $6.  I’m going to paint until I can’t paint anymore. I mean, I’ve done it for 60 years. And it’s kind of like, in your blood now. 

Curtis Arnett

RL: Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert and Commissioner Kyle Battie were on hand at the gallery for the showing.

Liz Alpert: Today, what we’re doing is we’re celebrating and honoring a relevant moment in Florida’s rich cultural timeline, while also recognizing the struggles the 25 men and one woman endured for their passion for painting vibrant landscapes of Old Florida. Today, the artists and their work represent an enduring legacy of perseverance and beauty sought by many collectors and institutions across the country.

Kyle Battie: It’s an esteemed honor to have them display their works on the walls of City Hall. Particularly here in Sarasota, you know, we have our own history, particularly when it comes to race and ethnicity and inclusion and diversity in the city, and the highwaymen represent just that.

RL: This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.

 

 

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.