This little-known history begins with a man named A.E. “Beanie” Backus, the godfather of the Highwaymen. Backus was born into the racially segregated city of Fort Pierce in 1906, when the town’s black and white neighborhoods were divided along train tracks. A largely self-taught artist, Backus created dramatic landscapes with a palette knife, combining what he’d learned at summer art classes at Parsons in New York City with his encyclopedic knowledge of Florida’s wildlife and his love of its epic thunderstorms. Considered the catalyst of Fort Pierce’s landscape movement, Backus kept his studio open to all, and took on a local student, Alfred Hair, as a studio assistant in 1954.
Hair soon graduated from making frames to learning the tools of the trade and developed his own approach to Florida landscape painting: quickly rendered and dramatically lit scenes with infinite skies. Hair made a name for himself painting dozens of artworks a day and driving the beachfront strip of Fort Pierce in search of customers, while blasting music by James Brown. (He worked at that pace up until his tragic death by gunfire at age 29, in 1970.)
The seeds of the Highwaymen had been sewn, with many more schoolboys and girls making the pilgrimage to Backus’s studio to develop their own artistic careers. Author Gary Monroe, who has written about the Highwaymen, describes a key group of nine painters emerging from a generous headcount of 26 loose “members.” Those central figures included Harold Newton, James Gibson, Livingston Roberts, Roy McLendon, and Mary Ann Carroll—each with their own unique artistic style and business approach.