Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Get out on the highway



I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Florida Highwaymen – not the sweat and bug-plagued road crews we pass daily – but the 1950s artist movement started by sweat and bug-plagued African American painters from the Fort Pierce area. These Highwaymen are considered by many enlightened scholars and critics as the beginning of the Florida Regional Art tradition. But man, oh man, what a tough beginning.

It’s difficult to make a living as an artist, but it is do-able. It requires unalterable faith and great persistence; and is definitely difficult. If you are an artist without representation, you must always, always, always be thinking outside the gallery. How and where do you display your work? How do you get people to go look at it? And how, when the chips are all the way down, do you keep the faith? Production/construction is generally a labor of love. The rest? Not so much. (Okay, none of that is actually limited to the art business.)

For black artists in the segregated South, the task would seem insurmountable. Denied access to formal training and exhibition venues (and bathrooms, and restaurants and motel rooms) they prevailed through persistence and faith; further proof that we are not artists by choice, but because we have no choice – we are who we are.

Lacking studios, they painted outdoors, focusing on Florida’s great subtropical wilderness. Vibrant flora, brilliant skies, and dramatic silhouettes: untamed lands captured by untrained hands. Working together they formed camaraderie and learned

Everglades scape

Everglades scape

from each other. The resulting body of work, mostly executed on inexpensive Upson board and framed with crown molding, was filled with raw beauty, honesty, and charm.

Lacking representation, those Highwaymen sold along Florida’s two-lane highways from the trunks of their cars. Necessity certainly is the mother of invention. Today you can find those paintings in the Florida Artist Hall of Fame (located in the Capitol Rotunda in Tallahassee); and in the Florida House, a sort of State embassy in Washington D.C.; and on Ebay. What they used to sell for ten and twenty dollars, you couldn’t buy now for a thousand.

“Ah!” says one dealer, “There is no more Regional Art to be had by the roadside, and collectors scramble to pay tiny fortunes for their piece of that story, for an emblem of their own intrepid tenacity, a trophy to the unvarnished.” The irony is that it is, in fact, all around us. Travel with me today along US 41 and see for yourself.

Half a dozen years ago I wandered into Joanie’s Crab Shack in Ochopee – just a quarter mile east of the Smallest Post Office in the World. The landscape is sublime, the restaurant quirky, the food excellent. Inside, one wall drew me like a magnet. It was covered with small paintings: Everglades-scapes, some so brilliant they could light up a room, others as delicate as a breath of mist across a prairie. They were absolutely filled with raw beauty, honesty and charm. Of

Joanie's backyard.

Joanie’s backyard.

course I was put in mind of the Highwaymen. Turns out the artist was Joanie’s sister, Jean Ortega. I checked the prices and bought one on the spot. It holds a prominent place in my living room and I will love it forever.

In the 1940’s, Miami-born Jean was just a little girl and already on the Artist’s path. “I was about four or five years old when I drew all over my bedroom wall. My Daddy was furious. He said he’d have to paint the whole room over. But my Grandma stopped him. She said they were beautiful and she was on my side.” When I asked Jean if she had formal training, her response was quick: “Oh no, I just always knew what to do. In fact, I believe I was born to be an art teacher. I was in the eighth grade, back in Miama Springs. I was given the job of teaching art,” says the native Floridian.

In the 1950s, Jean’s Daddy bought acres of swampland near Ochopee. Her sister Joanie would eventually open a restaurant and gas station on the property, but Jean would stay tied to the metropolitan area. She had a mentally disabled son with multiple health problems demanding close proximity to a major hospital. Jean has no regrets. “I had to do everything for him, and he did everything for me. We were best friends and were always there for each other.” He was disabled, she said, “In ever’way, accept

Gallery wall on US 41. Photos by Tara O'Neill

Gallery wall on US 41. Photos by Tara O’Neill

love.” He died a year ago and his loss weighs heavily on Jean’s heart. She doesn’t paint as much anymore. “I’m in a wheelchair and stuck on oxygen – smoked too many years – my fault.”

She doesn’t drive, so trips to Joanie’s are few and far between, but with her sister’s help her ‘gallery wall’ continues to ebb and flow. And that is one place where you can see (and purchase) some of the best Florida Regional Art along any Florida highway.

The only requisite to the art in your life is that it please you. Please support your local galleries, but please don’t be limited by them. Attend happenings at your local Art Leagues, stroll through tent shows, and always stop along the roadside with your eye out for that treasure. (Remember, it’s perfectly legal to put a $25 painting in a $200 frame.) Somewhere out there is a magnificent piece by someone you’ve never heard of, that touches you, and that you are going to love to look at every day.

To learn more about the Highwaymen, try these reads: Florida Highwaymen: Legendary Landscapes, by Bob Beatty. The Highwaymen, Florida African American Landscape Painters, by Gary Monroe.

Joanie’s Crab Shack is open Tuesday through Sunday, 239.695.2682.

Tara O’Neill has been an area resident since 1967. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts from the University of South Florida, Tampa, and currently has a studio-gallery at the Artist Colony at the Esplanade on Marco Island. She can be contacted through her web site www.taraogallery.com.

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