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"Highwaymen" Invade Gadsden Art Gallery

FSU special collection

The Gadsden Art Center and Museum in Quincy opens a new exhibit on Friday evening, July 14. It’s a rare glimpse at what Florida used to look like as seen through the eyes of some unique artists.

First, if you’re not familiar with the Gadsden Art Center and Museum, Executive Director Grace Robinson has the sales pitch down pat.

“It was founded in 1994 and it’s grown a lot over the years,” she explained. “It has always been a quality operation. The founding director did a brilliant job. And as of last year, we became accredited by the American Alliance of Museums making us the 27th nationally accredited art museum in the state of Florida.”

Which Robinson said means a whole bunch more than simple bragging rights. It gives the Gadsden Art Center and Museum access to a much wider range of exhibits, like the one opening on July 14th. Curator of Exhibitions and Collections Angie Barry said it’s called “Florida’s First Highwaymen”

. “Here’s a group of African-Americans who couldn’t show in the galleries or the museums, but they wanted to share and sell their artwork, so they would go door-to-door and sometimes in parking lots and along the highways to sell their artwork to tourists.”

Hometown folk also delighted in picking up some terrific original paintings for just a few dollars. Barry said the inspiration and mentor for the Highwaymen until his death in 1990 was A.E. “Bean” Backus, who lived in Fort Pierce.

“Backus, this white, regionalist landscape painter who was really well known, sharing his knowledge and even his supplies with these black artists and teaching them how to paint and then going and taking off in this whole new direction.”

Barry added viewers can see examples of Backus’s work, but the real focus is the art of the Highwaymen themselves.

“Harold Newton who was one of the most talented painters and really took his time and was as concerned with the quality of his work as Backus was. So he was the whole deal. He wanted to be a fine painter and wanted to create great work and was known for being able to copy any brush stroke or style. He developed his own and captured beautiful light in his paintings, but he hated manual labor and he had developed this door-to-door way of selling artwork, so he was the whole Highwayman package.”

Newton isn’t the only Highwayman in the exhibit.

“Alfred Hair was a talented painter and he enjoyed painting. But he did not worry first about the quality of his work, the detail, the artistic concerns; he developed a formula that sold and created an assembly line method for cranking these things out.”

And there’s more.

“Like Mary Ann Carroll (and) her use of color and her detail was very much along the same lines as Harold Newton and then R. A. McLendon who did other beautiful images, the images are similar,” Barry concluded. “You’ll seen a lot of palm and Poinciana trees, you’ll see a lot of rivers and water.”

Visions of an older, more natural Florida. Gadsden Art Center Executive Director Grace Robinson said Florida’s First Highwaymen opens at 6:00 p.m. Friday, July 14th and continues through September 23rd. She has also been inviting civic and other groups to make use of the Center as a meeting as well as exhibit space.

“Schedule your group for a tour,” she urged. “You can also have lunch ordered in from one of three caterers and then we provide your space for free and you can have your group meeting following lunch, so it’s a fun way to combine a visit to the Museum with whatever your group normally does and a fantastic lunch on top of that.”


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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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