Although not much is known about his early life, journalists frequently interviewed Buckner in the 1990s when the Highwaymen were gaining recognition as a group. Additionally, his nephew, Ellis Buckner, Jr., wrote a book about the Buckner Brothers. Much of his story comes from these two sources.
George was the oldest of twelve children. He was close to his father who taught him to work hard and learn as many skills as he could. He was gifted in carpentry, mechanics, and electrical work. When he was in the ninth grade, George dropped out of school after his father died to help support his family. Like his father, he loved the blues and jazz, and when he was nineteen, he played bass guitar in a group called the Melodeons. The band played together for nine years and as members left, in order to keep the band functioning, he learned to play their instruments. He accomplished this all by ear, never learning to read music. George cut lawns, did odd jobs, and worked construction. He and his brother Ellis also labored in the Indian River citrus groves for very little money. In the 1960s, the two brothers owned a barbeque business.
One day they saw Harold Newton painting a landscape near their home in Gifford, the black community by Vero Beach. They were impressed by his work and his ability to sell his paintings. Livingston Roberts, another painter, was living in a rented apartment over Club Bally at the time and he would often come to the Buckner’s barbeque shop for a sandwich. George heard from Livingston that Harold Newton and Alfred Hair were making $50 for a landscape and could make as much as $1,000 a day by selling multiple works. He decided being an artist would be a better life than picking oranges and selling sandwiches. So George and Ellis scaled down their work at other jobs (although the lawn cutting business remained throughout much of his adult life) and started learning to paint from Harold and Livingston. They bought a $10 oil set and started experimenting. They visited Bean Backus’s studio often and learned quickly. George reported, “I admired what Bean Backus was doing, and I showed him my work. He helped me a lot.”
When he was twenty-three, George married Lucille Russ and had two children. His marriage was strong as was his love for his family. They built the house where they raised their family and George lived until he died. To help with the family finances, Lucille cut hair in their home. George didn’t like selling on the road because it took him away from Gifford, but he knew it was a necessary part of his work.
He started selling his work in Vero Beach, working alone. He sold to doctors, lawyers, and to the staff in a telephone company office. He went to packinghouses where workers bought landscapes for their wives. Occasionally he’d go to expensive homes and give private showings. George explained, “Attorney Stikeleather bought a lot of my paintings, and that kept me going. I did a show on the beach in the 1960s and made $800 in one day. People liked Florida’s bright orange sunsets.” At one time, he and his brother Ellis had a gallery in Miami. Ellis lived above the gallery and George painted at home and delivered them to Ellis to sell. George also sold his paintings at art shows. He sometimes won awards, including a first place at Miami Art for a scene along Jungle Trail. When he went on the road to sell, unlike other Highwaymen, he sometimes took his wife Lucille to demonstrate that painting was a viable livelihood. According to Al Black, George and Ellis sometimes sold for the Fort Pierce group of painters as well as the Vero/Gilford group.
While it was important to support his family by painting landscapes, Buckner was also keenly attuned to doing quality work. With a recognition that he had grown as an artist, he once lamented, “Looking back, my work was so bad then that I am ashamed of it today.” He remained critical of his work throughout his lifetime. Always striving to be a better artist, he was proud his success. “I paint the Everglades and put a lot of time and effort into each scene. Now, I exhibit in places like Viscaya, University of Miami, Coconut Grove and the Keys. Today , they sell for $4,000 to $5,000.” He also had works displayed in the Supreme Court building in Tallahassee and the Governor’s Mansion.
Buckner continued with his musical interests after his band broke up. He played the keyboard on Sundays at the Church of God & Christ in Gifford. Mary Ann Carroll remembers him as having “a church spirit,” and as someone who was a gifted musician as well as an artist. He frequently played the piano, guitar, and saxophone, and his son Reuben claimed that he never saw an instrument his father couldn’t play. George might have joined a band at sometime in his life and toured the country, but he was too attached to his family to leave them behind. Painting, therefore, was a better life choice for him.
His passion was painting Florida’s skies. Reuben explains his father’s fascination with this aspect of his work: “At any stop sign, he’s gazing up at the clouds. It wasn’t nothing for him to grab the camera and walk to the bridge and just take pictures of different clouds.” He had thousands of pictures of Florida skies that informed his paintings.
According to Susan Harris who wrote a 2000 Vero Beach Magazine article on the Highwaymen, one of Buckner’s biggest fans was Cathy Godsey, a third generation Floridian and owner of two of Vero Beach’s best known hotels, the DoubleTree Guest Suites and the Palm Court Resort. She owned several Backus paintings and was a huge supporter of George’s work. In fact, his was the first of the Highwaymen’s work she purchased. Leaning on her background in art, she praised Buckner’s work: “I’m amazed by the way he has progressed…. His work is extremely detailed—he captures the magic of Florida clouds on a par with, if not better than, Bean Backus.”
George Buckner died from cancer on December 7, 2002 at the Indian River Hospital in Vero Beach. He passed away just two weeks after the Highwaymen were featured on the front page of the New York Times art section. His son Reuben says he was a kind and quiet man who was always ready to help someone. He had an unwavering love for his family and a strong talent in both art and music.
His subject matter was initially wide ranging. In 1997, he told reporter Ethel Yari, “When I started, I painted everything—fruit, mountains and snow scenes, even though I never saw any snow. But they didn’t sell. Buyers wanted Florida landscapes.” So he worked to perfect what sold. Before he died, his landscapes commanded prices in the thousands.
The evolution of his painting is also recognized by George’s use of materials. He reported, “We used to paint on particle board because it was cheaper to get, and we could sell our paintings for less. But then I switched to canvas, even though it’s harder to work on.” And in a way of understanding that the surface of a painting is important to the process and product he explained, “The rhythm is different.”
George Buckner was one of the most accomplished Highwaymen painters. The Florida skies he so loved are particularly striking in his work.