Hezekiah Hudson Baker
It is said that Hezekiah Baker was happiest when he was painting, that he had a serious and focused mind, and took an entrepreneurial approach to life. People who knew him say he was positive and upbeat, even when times got hard. Baker made his living painting in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was able to return to it later in life when the Highwaymen surged in popularity.
Born in Savannah Georgia on September 25, 1940 to a sharecropping family, Hezekiah understood hard work. His father was a minister and, like other members of his family, they were continuously inventing new ways to earn a little money. His devotion to his family was evident early on. His mother said he never gave her a day of trouble.
Hezekiah moved to Fort Pierce in 1942 when he was 13. A quiet student at Lincoln Park Academy, he especially liked classes about money and how it worked. After graduating, he took classes in business and real estate.
Hezekiah was married twice. He wed Gladys Juanita Paige in 1957 or 1958 (sources vary), and together they had three daughters. After Gladys died in 2001, he married Ivory Young. She had been divorced for 20 years and hadn’t been thinking of marriage. She was attracted to Hezekiah, who was restrained and kind. Ivory said he told her he didn’t want to be alone, and marriage seemed like the right path for her to take. It was clear to her that family was important to him, and he loved his children very much. According to Ivory, he was a good husband, and “a 100 percent good father.” Her six children immediately took to him once they saw how happy he made her.
Just as other young black men in Fort Pierce, Hezekiah worked in the citrus fields when he was young. When he was in his 20s, he entered a drawing contest he saw in a magazine. When he received a small award for winning, his interest in art grew. Hezekiah painted mostly portraits but switched to landscapes after meeting Alfred Hair in the 1960s. Hair asked Hezekiah how long it took him to finish a painting, and when he replied that it took two to three hours, Alfred showed him how to paint faster. He would go to Alfred’s house to watch him and the other painters create their landscapes. Once he returned home, he would immediately try to replicate what they were doing. When Hezekiah experienced selling paintings for $25 or $35, good money back then, he was hooked, and started painting for a living.
Like the other Fort Pierce painters, Hezekiah went on the road to sell his paintings. Unlike some of the other salesmen, he traveled alone. He loaded up his wet paintings in his car and took extra paint for touch ups in case they were damaged en route. Reflecting on those early days in 1995, Hezekiah told a reporter, “It was easy, really. I was surprised at the money we made. On the east coast, demand was huge; new buildings were coming up fast. The prices were right.”
In order to improve his painting abilities, Hezekiah studied books, especially the way various artists used color. He told his wife Ivory that he taught himself to paint, because he didn’t learn in art school. He painted with great focus, often electing to finish a painting instead of breaking for a meal. Throughout the years, he maintained a close relationship with Johnny Daniels, Mary Ann Carroll, James Gibson and Robert Butler. His association with his painting friends gave him a lot of satisfaction as they shared ideas and stories about selling on the road.
After Hair died in 1970, the demand for landscape paintings began to wane. Counties across Florida began to require occupational licenses and enforced no soliciting rules. Hezekiah was continually called on to bail art salesmen out of jail. Consequently, he decided to concentrate his work efforts into other ventures.
When painting was not lucrative, Baker worked a number of jobs in Fort Pierce. For a time, he was in real estate. He also worked at the Dandee Bakery and sold insurance. He even owned a restaurant called House of Foods on 25th Street, a dream that was mostly attributed to Gladys, his first wife. He painted when he had time, and others sold his work for him on the road.
When the Highwaymen works began receiving publicity in the mid 1990s, Hezekiah was thrilled with his newfound notoriety, began painting more intensely. Art dealers Sue and David Folds took an interest in Hezekiah’s work. They sponsored him at the 1997 Folk Fest in Atlanta, where he sold many of his paintings. After that, he would get up at 5:00 a.m. to make breakfast at his restaurant, work through lunch and close his business in the afternoon so he could paint. Before long, Ivory suggested he close his restaurant, as business was slow. She knew he would be happier painting and that he could once again make money from his landscapes. He gladly responded to her encouragement and went back to his first passion. Explaining his good fortune, he said, “I have no problem selling them [paintings]…. I could make a living at it now. And it’s because of Jim [Fitch]. He made it that way. I call him Alan Greenspan. People listen to him about what to buy.”
In later years, he sold his work at art shows or people came to him to buy. Although he was quiet and somewhat introverted, he liked explaining his work to potential customers. His brother, Lee Drake, who was 30 years younger than Hezekiah and wasn’t raised with him, often went with him on sales trips and festivals. Drake made frames for his brother, and in the mid 1990s, helped Hezekiah sell work with Slotin Folk Art Auctions in Atlanta.
Hezekiah’s health began to deteriorate in the late 1990s. He had diabetes and high blood pressure. By 1998, he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, which did not develop fully before he died on August 1, 2007, officially from Parkinson’s disease. He was buried at Hillcrest Memorial Gardens on US Highway 1.
Hezekiah’s wife Ivory says he should rank as one of the best Highwaymen artists. One of his landscapes is displayed on an easel in her living room. Hezekiah is remembered as a good friend and family man as well as an artist who created colorful Florida landscape paintings.
Hezekiah Baker’s color palette incorporated both pastel shades and vivid colors, especially in his skies at sunset. His skies are well considered, as they reflect the feelings represented in the ocean or land below. Ivory Baker claims that while he liked oranges and reds, his paintings got darker in his later years as he became sick. His images are generally calm and static, emphasizing the way Florida’s landscapes can be meditative and quiet. Even his ocean scenes invite contemplation. Birds often pose peacefully or move impressionistically through the otherwise undisturbed and idyllic scenery. His painting surfaces varied over the years and included Upson board, Masonite, particle board, which he got from Home Depot, and stretched canvas. Like many of the other Highwaymen, Hezekiah Baker relied on his memory of Florida nature for inspiration.