Born in Gifford, the African American section of Vero Beach, Ellis was the second oldest of twelve children. One of his brothers died young from drowning. The family was close-knit, and religious education was highly valued. Ellis’ mother Gladys was a good cook and he often helped her in the kitchen. Like his brother George, who was a year older, he dropped out of school to help support his family after his father died. His formal education, therefore, was limited to the ninth grade. Even before that time, his school attendance was sporadic. When Ellis and George played hooky from school, their father wouldn’t have them idling away their day. So he took them to the groves to pick fruit. He figured if they weren’t getting an education, they could help support the family.
Ellis’ father embedded a strong work ethic in him. He honed his business skills at an early age, peddling vegetables from his garden at his own produce stand, and if he went fishing and had had a good catch, he sold a few fish. He had a knack for figuring out things. He could take a car motor apart and put it back in good working condition. He made signs for businesses and was employed as a car detailer for a short time. He worked the orange groves during the harvesting season and partnered with George in cutting lawns and running a barbeque business. With his astute business sense, Ellis was a good provider for his family. He was constantly thinking about how to make a few extra dollars.
When he was young, his brother George bought him a painting set for $10 and he painted his first picture, a seascape, in his family’s backyard. His mother sold it for $25 to a lady whose house she cleaned. Years later, as Ellis was improving as an artist, he was troubled about the poor quality of that painting. Feeling badly about the sale, he took his patron one of his more accomplished paintings.
Ellis and George were introduced to the idea of painting professionally by Harold Newton, who they saw painting one day in Gifford. Harold told the brothers that he, Alfred Hair, and others were making good money selling their artwork. Livingston Roberts was also making money by selling landscape paintings. He lived nearby in a rental over Club Bally in Gifford and often came to their barbeque business to purchase sandwiches. Ellis and George were intrigued with the work that Harold and Livingston were doing, so they stopped picking oranges and began learning to paint. Ellis figured that if he could earn even a portion of what Harold was making, he’d be doing well. He told a reporter, “Fifty dollars could buy seven bags of groceries.” Not only was the money attractive, the flexible lifestyle that came with being one’s own boss was also highly appealing. Harold gave the Buckners some quick lessons and they began to visit Livingston who also gave them a few tips. Then they began experimenting. They continued to watch Harold and Livingston paint and they went to visit Bean Backus in his studio to learn what they could from him.
Ellis married Betty Smith from Panama City. Together they had two children, son Ellis Jr., and a daughter. In October 1973, after being married for only a short time, Betty and her daughter were killed in a car crash. Ellis was devastated but happy to have his son Ellis, Jr. alive and well. Healing from his grief took time. Family members and neighbors pitched in to help raise his young son. He later met and married Bettye Fuller from Pompano; they had two children of their own, Ellise and Elliot.
Ellis sometimes painted with his brother George. They also painted separately in their home studios. Their different personalities suited their partnership. George was more of a loner, so he stayed home and painted. Ellis was the salesman as he was more outgoing and had good organizational skills. At one time they had a gallery in Miami. Ellis and his family lived upstairs; Bettye handled sales on the lower level where the paintings were displayed. George painted in his Gifford home and brought his paintings to the gallery to sell. Sometimes Ellis met him halfway to retrieve his work. When the gallery closed, the family returned to Gifford.
In keeping with the way he was raised, Ellis had a strong belief in God. He was an active member of a Gifford Pentecostal church where his brother Jack was the minister and he had the role of elder minister. George played the keyboard and Ellis sang and played the baritone during services. He spent long hours working as an evangelist. When he got sick with diabetes, he believed that God’s grace would heal him. As is the gift for many Pentecostals, Ellis often spoke in tongues.
Ellis died in 1991 from complications from diabetes; he was fifty-eight. He did not live long enough to see the revival of interest in the Highwaymen. But as a strong believer in God’s will, he understood that when he was called from this earth, it was time to go. Ellis Buckner, Jr., continues his father’s legacy as a painter.
Together the brothers studied books on perspective, vanishing points, and horizon lines. They discussed how to create depth in their landscapes. In their early work, they used a triangle square to assist them with creating perspective. They practiced ways of making shadows and enhancing sunlight. A painting was never completed as quickly as Alfred Hair and other Fort Pierce painters created theirs. The Buckner brothers were more calculated as they worked.
Much of Ellis’ work has a sense of stillness to it and his color palette is more realistic than many of the other Highwaymen’s work. He liked placing birds in his landscapes, and reflections in the water were carefully depicted. George may have been the better painter, but a quality landscape by Ellis Buckner can easily move the spirit in appreciation of nature’s beauty.