Hezekiah Hudson Baker
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, and his mother said he never gave her a day of trouble. He 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; both marriages were loving. He wedded 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. But she was attracted to Hezekiah, who was restrained and kind. He told her he didn’t want to be alone, and marriage seemed like the right path for her to take. It was clear 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, he worked in the orange fields when he was young. When he was in his 20s, he entered a drawing contest he saw in a magazine. He received a small award for winning, and his interest in art grew. He had been painting mostly portraits but switched to landscapes after meeting Alfred Hair in the 1960s. Hair asked Baker how long it took him to finish a painting, and when Hezekiah 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’d 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 other Fort Pierce painters, he 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 there was damage en route. Reflecting on those early days, in 1995, he told a reporter, “It was easy, really. I was surprised at that 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, he 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 painting began to wane. Counties began to require occupational licenses and enforced no soliciting rules. Hezekiah was continually called on to bail salesmen out of jail. Consequently, he decided to move his work efforts into other ventures.
When painting was not lucrative, Baker worked a number of jobs. For a time, he was in real estate. He worked at the Dandee Bakery and sold insurance. He also 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’s works began receiving publicity in the mid 1990s, he was thrilled with his newfound notoriety, and he began to paint 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 well. 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 therefore wasn’t raised with him, often went with him on sales trips and to festivals. Drake make frames for his bother, and in the mid 1990s, he helped Baker sell work with Soltin 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, although Alzheimer’s never got to a late stage of development. He died on August 1, 2007, officially from Parkinson’s disease. He was buried at Hillcrest Memorial Gardens on US Highway 1.
His wife Ivory says he should rank with the best of the Highwaymen. She keeps one of his landscapes 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.