Sunday, June 22, 2008

Arcadia art gallery unveils works of true Highwayman

Published Sunday, June 22, 2008 at 4:30 a.m.
Last updated Sunday, June 22, 2008 at 4:34 a.m.

ARCADIA — Albert "Blood" Black first exhibited his work in Arcadia around three decades ago. At that time, the seminal Florida artist's paintings hung near bags of chicken feed and bales of hay in a local barn.

Last month, when Black pulled up to an Arcadia gallery in his black Chrysler 300 with a trunk full of paintings, his work inspired a bit more reverence.

"You coulda knocked me over with a feather when he asked me to help him," recalls Realtor Gordon "Mac" Martin, owner of the Martin Art Gallery on Magnolia Street. "When the Highwaymen come to town, people get excited about it."

A patriarch of the now-iconic, 20th-century movement of black "Highwaymen" landscape artists, Black had heard about Martin's gallery from a client.

"See, I'm well-known in Arcadia," he says. "I used to do all the paintings in the banks and real estate offices."

Martin was happy to give him all the gallery space he needed.

The brick- and white-walled 1935 plantation house that belonged to Martin's grandparents and doubles as his realty firm's headquarters now boasts a robust sampling of 16 Highwaymen classics. Sunset scenes and depictions of Indian River Drive in Fort Pierce decorate the walls of the building's central gallery room. In the foyer are numerous impressions of the St. Lucie River, gulls circling an abandoned dinghy and royal poinciana trees.

Of the paintings in Martin's stash, 14 are by Black, the others by two of his Highwaymen peers, Willie Daniels and Harold Newton.

Martin currently has the works on informal display but is planning a higher-profile show opening next February.

The exposure may be just another notch in Black's belt of professional triumphs -- a biography covering the artist's prison stint will be published next April; his work has already made it to Gov. Charlie Crist's office walls -- but Black is grateful for every ounce of attention.

Just 50 years ago, he says, his paintings would never have commanded the four-figure prices they often do today.

In fact, in segregated Fort Pierce, where the artist first picked up a brush, a Black original might never have made it into a gallery at all.

Segregation in the arts

The road to critical acclaim was a long one for the Highwaymen.

Much of that delay was due to race.

In the mid-1950s, Florida's artistic landscape was still a white man's world, with little room for the black experience. Black painters found little acceptance at the local studios; many had to rely on their wits to hone their own talents.

"Fort Pierce was a very segregated community," says Jack Hambrick, owner of the Florida-based US News Group production company and executive producer of the recently released documentary "The Highwaymen: The Legends of the Road." "If you were black, the only type of opportunity would be to work in the orange grove fields."

According to Hambrick, selling decorative landscape paintings was, for blacks settled in Fort Pierce, more than just a conduit for artistic expression: It was a way out of menial labor.

Influenced by best-selling 1950s Florida landscape artist A.E. Backus, amateur painters such as Alfred Hair and Harold Newton would turn out favorite panoramas -- beach and backcountry scenes, mostly -- each day by the dozen, frugally splashing oils onto crude Upson board and peddling them still wet along coastal roads like State Road A1A.

The paintings only cost $25 to $35 back then. Without a proper agent, however, business was often slow.

"They didn't know how to sell," Black remembers. The Mississippi native, who reached Fort Pierce in 1961 as a 16-year-old migrant potato picker, first stumbled upon the bohemian group when he was working as a huckster for a typewriter company.

Unlike his new circle of friends -- whose business strategies entailed flashing cardboard signs and hawking their creations in the open dirt road -- Black already had significant sales experience and knew what it took to turn a profit.

"You go into an office, you put your shirt in," he explains. "That'll get you in the door."

Soon, the seasoned merchant was stuffing his friends' work into the trunk of his car and, shirt starched, marching into banks and doctors' offices from St. Lucie to DeSoto to Sarasota counties.

The target buyers were not always impressed with his pitches.

"When I first started, times were tough for a black man," he says. Some clients asked Black if his wares were stolen; others called the police.

"But by me being a man, I could level with them," he says. "Once you got in the office and were presentable, they couldn't say too much."

Black traces his own experience as a professional painter back to 1970, when his companions started letting him fix their paintings whenever their Upson canvases "got scarred on the road."

"We hung out at a bar called Eddy's Place in Fort Pierce, drinking beer and stuff," he recalls of his first taste of the artist's life. "I got better and better. Everybody liked my work -- and it sold from day one."

And sold, and sold. The salesman-turned-artist has watched his status grow from footnote of an unknown art movement to patriarch of a respected school of art.

Artistic triumph can come with personal trials, however, and Black had his share of both. About a year and a half ago, he ended a 12-year period of incarceration in several state prisons.

Convicted of fraud in 1997, Black was initially sent to the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando. He said he had borrowed too much money from an older female patron to feed his addiction to crack cocaine, though over a span of several years, he had also been arrested on charges of bouncing checks, assault, cocaine possession and violation of parole.

He was inmate number 793362 at the Reception Center. But he was also a painter.

"I mostly got along with the other guards," the artist says of his time behind bars. The guards became his biggest patrons.

"They come up and say, 'Is you the famous Al Black?'" he recalls. "I said, 'I don't know how famous.' They said, 'We want you to fix up our offices.'"

Soon, he had covered the mess hall walls with 90 acrylic panoramas -- and later, at Daytona Beach's Tomoka Correctional Institution, he secured a fan base of fellow inmates, several of whom he began teaching in the prison's hobby shop.

"Some of them turned out to be real good artists," he says.

A scholarly revolution

Part of what helped the Highwaymen artists amass their following came from outside the movement itself.

In 1994, a Florida-based art acquisition agent named Jim Fitch published his article "The Highwaymen" in Antiques & Art Around Florida magazine, effectively launching a scholarly revolution in the way people interpreted black folk art and the "Indian River School."

The stories of struggle and creation in the Jim Crow-era South resonated with both collectors and academics. In 2001, a book called "The Highwaymen" was published identifying 26 painters as members of the group; three years later, all were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, with eight identified as originators of the movement.

"No art movement captured the state as this art movement did," says Gary Monroe, a DeLand-based studio art professor and art historian. "And no Hollywood script writer could improve the Fort Pierce story."

For nearly a decade, Monroe has devoted himself to charting the Highwaymen history -- he was responsible for identifying the 26 innovators -- and next year will release "The Highwaymen Murals," his biography of Black and the prison murals, which Monroe calls "masterpieces."

What drew him to the paintings was their gestural style, he says, the way the unfinished-looking work somehow "beckons the viewer to finish the painting in their mind and become a co-author."

That, and the way the artists' real-life financial concerns shattered old artistic paradigms.

"It's an acquired taste," he says. "But I think by painting fast," the Highwaymen "inadvertently corrupted the cherished concerns of traditional landscape painting. In the process of painting fast to make more money, they actually brought a fresher form to the genre, and challenged it to make something newer and more relevant than the established mode.

"By painting fast, they stripped bare the artifice."

Other enthusiasts agree.

"What really makes the Highwaymen story magical is the story," says Hambrick. "People aren't buying this artwork the way you'd buy works by fine artists. It's more of a populist kind of appeal."

Identifying marks

And many of the pivotal scenes from that Highwaymen story are now on display at Martin's gallery. There's Highway A1A, Eddy's Place, a triptych of the backwoods marsh at sunset, a rendering of the Florida Everglades.

When the artist rolls into the gallery to meet with his latest exhibitor, Martin can barely contain himself.

"For a while, I had 'em in a locked room upstairs," he says of the paintings. "You have to have a certain level of confidence when handling this level of value."

Black walks around the gallery, decked in gold chains, his wrists stacked with bracelets. "She did a very good job," he says when Martin tells him his assistant did the hanging.

Soon the talk turns to money, and the former typewriter salesman has a few suggestions. The typical Al Black painting features three white birds to represent the father, the son and the Holy Spirit. Two of the paintings don't, though: these, Martin is told, can be priced higher. (The gallery owner has yet to tag the works but says many will start around $1,000.)

Black also shows Martin how to identify the prison paintings -- they are the ones where his signature is written in those austere block letters.

"When you tell them Al Black painted them in prison, they sell so fast," Black says.

Which will most likely be the fate of the tree painting on display in the front lobby.

"Man," says Martin, ecstatic. "I got me a prison poinciana!"

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