Robert was born in Baxley, Georgia, a small timber and farming town. He moved to Okeechobee with his mother, Annie Tolifer Butler, when he was four years old. They had very little money when Robert was growing up. He spent much of his time exploring nature and became well acquainted with the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. As a boy, he hunted rabbits, hogs, and deer. Reflecting on these activities, Robert recognized the similarity in the two activities; both artists and hunters need to pay attention to their environment. As a young child, he learned to “read” the land.
Robert graduated from a segregated high school, and because his employment choices were limited, he mowed lawns and did maintenance work at dairies. When one of his lawn clients saw his drawings, he gave Robert an $11 oil painting to encourage his talent. This same customer also helped him get a job as a hospital orderly. Working in the hospital as the sun went down, Robert would look out the window and have a strong desire to paint the sunset. His hospital position gave him proximity to potential customers and he was able to sell work to doctors and other hospital personnel. One discerning doctor commissioned him to paint a prized Appaloosa horse. Robert had to repaint the picture forty times, a lesson that taught him patience and the importance of detail.
To give more visibility to his art, Robert set up his easel by a mall in the center of town. Word spread and Butler’s sales increased. When an Okeechobee librarian saw his work, she paid a $25 fee for him to take a correspondence art class. Remarking on the area’s reputation as a racist town, art promoter and early Highwaymen collector Jim Fitch explained to Klinkenberg, “Okeechobee, some folk will tell you, might be the heart of Florida’s redneck belt. But many who helped Robert along the way were white.” In fact, Robert claimed he didn’t remember racism in the 50s and 60s, or maybe, he said, he didn’t want to remember it. In spite of the racial tensions of the times, the town helped him succeed.
In 1969, Don Herold, then Director of the Polk Museum of Art, saw Robert’s work and offered him a show. After the 1970 exhibition at the museum, his sales increased substantially. Robert Butler was on his way to becoming an established, marketable artist.
Robert credits his mother, who worked three jobs, with his strong work ethic. She picked tomatoes, waited tables in restaurants, and cleaned hotel rooms to make ends meet. Butler told Jeff Klinkenberg “She was one of those people who believed you could accomplish anything if you worked hard enough.” In 1995, a white businessman who believed in her work ethic, loaned her $5,000. She invested in a boarding house and with the profits she purchased a restaurant. She bought cast-off lumber from demolition sites at low prices and used it to build other boarding houses. Determined to save money where she could, she laid the foundations herself.
Once Robert’s work was selling well, he quit his job as an orderly. He knew he had to take a risk. He explained to Klinkenberg, “I was swimming in this fantastic psychological soup at the time; I came from this poor background and yet this door was opening wide for me, to this universe that could be explored forever. I wanted to paint as much as I could and never looked back.”
Butler married and eventually had nine children. Keenly aware of his responsibility as a father and a husband, he knew he had to sell his paintings if he was going to support his family. He explained, “I’d put the paintings in my station wagon and $10 in my pocket for gas. It was a one-way ticket. I had to sell some paintings to get back [home].”
His early paintings were done quickly. He took to the roadways in 1968 and sold his paintings for around $35, much like the other Highwaymen. He stayed on the road until every landscape was sold. He was a smart salesman, often targeting ranchers who had an affinity for the land. He’d ask for referrals, remembering how well that system of selling worked at the hospital. If he didn’t have just the right painting for someone, he’d make a sketch and return later with a finished landscape that might be more to the customer’s liking. His best selling works were turkey paintings, which were particularly prized by hunters. When a landscape didn’t sell, he’d quickly paint a turkey in it and it would readily please a customer.
Butler had a longtime friendship with Jim Fitch, the man who later named the Highwaymen. Their friendship began in Okeechobee and they bonded over their love of the Florida landscape and the Bible. Jim helped Robert in the early years by building frames for his artwork and giving him marketing advice. Jim purchased his first painting from Robert in 1967. He sold Butler’s work in his Okeechobee arts and crafts store and gallery and later in his Sebring art gallery. Robert also taught classes in Jim’s Sebring classroom that was part of the gallery.
Butler’s lifestyle changed as his paintings improved and his reputation grew. In 1965 he drove a beat up Oldsmobile Catalina 50,000 miles a year. When it broke down once in Haines City, he paid for a new rear wheel bearing with a turkey painting. By 1995 he was one of the best-known landscape painters in Florida and was driving a prized 1972 four-wheel drive Chevy Suburban. He spent less time on the road as he had more opportunities to sell his work.
When he traveled, he could be gone for days. He’d often stop to sketch a striking landscape or study something particular that he wanted to remember and incorporate into his work. His goal was to document correctly. Sometimes when he’d stop at a motel for the night, he would paint what inspired him on the trip. The quiet of the motel space was appealing. He told Klinkenburg: “Creativity, by its very nature, is about exploration….You have to have at least the illusion of being free to explore your ideas. For me, that means going to a place where I can shut out all distractions. Nobody can call me. I don’t watch TV and I don’t listen to the radio. I paint.”
Eventually, Butler started making prints and advertising in outdoor magazines. He moved his family to Lakeland and opened a gallery. At first, money was the primary motivation for his painting, especially as his family grew. He explained, “Listen, there’s nothing in the world like nine children to get you up on your feet and out the door painting and selling.” But as success came, and he was sometimes making $7,500 for a painting, he concentrated more on the quality of his work. Still, he traveled frequently and lamented the time away from his family. He wrote in his book, “A special tribute goes to my wife Dorothy and the rest of my family for the support they gave under sometimes difficult circumstances. Many are the hours, days, and sometimes weeks they have suffered the lack of my presence amid the family circle.”
In the summer of 1993, Butler took a cultural exchange trip to Africa hoping to establish a connection with his ancestors. A hired tour guide took him to Tanzania. Here, he painted in a small Masai village in the high plains. He painted ostriches, stone huts, the village people, and the dry and dusty plains of the area. The trip changed the way he saw the world, and especially the way he experienced light.
In February 2008, a fire destroyed more than 200 of his early paintings. Luckily, he had photographs of many of these works, which he was able to reproduce in his book. In this publication, he gives credit to other Florida landscapers who gave him inspiration. He also comments on the Civil Rights Movement and the Highwaymen’s paintings: “Not created to replicate the turmoil of our time in protest, our art recorded the things positively affecting our humanity and reflects only the best of our world….While it is clear that living amid the racially charged environment of the Civil Rights Era theoretically challenged our dreams of deriving wealth and prosperity from our art, once on the streets we were thrilled to discover that the love of art transcended racial discord.”
Robert Butler’s life was filled with a deep love for Florida’s wilderness. On March 19, 2014, Robert Butler died in Lakeland from complications related to his thirty years as a diabetic. His marriage to Dorothy lasted over fifty years. Eight of his nine children paint or painted at some time during their lives.
It is best to understand Robert’s relationship to the land in his own words. In 2012, he wrote: “Strikingly beautiful, the Kissimmee River was my source of constant inspiration, just as the beaches were for the coastal Highwaymen during all the years that I lived in the region. Its windswept, black waters sparkled at midday, evoking visions of timeless vistas where droves of birds sailed the warm winds above. I would often take long walks before or after work and fish along the levee that contained the river after the early 1960s. My favorite time was at daybreak when I would imagine myself suspended in a Salvador Dali world where huge flights of white egrets silently passed overhead as if steered to some mysterious destination known only to nature.”
Robert was so attuned to making his landscapes an accurate representation of Florida’s flora and fauna that he interviewed biologists, botanists, and zoologists for details. Jim Fitch remembers a time when “he was commissioned to paint a bear hunt for the cover of Florida Wildlife magazine. He researched for days, finding out that many hunters used dogs, and that sometimes the dogs were branded with the initials of the hunters.” So Robert branded the dogs in his painting. But after he turned in his artwork, he thought that animal rights activists might be disturbed by the branding. So, according to Fitch, he drove back to the company and painted out the brands. Overnight he rethought his decision and drove back to Miami and painted in the brands once again.
Working from sketches drawn from time spent in Florida’s landscape and field notes he made whenever he learned anything new, Robert could work eighteen hours without a break. He once painted twenty paintings in four days.
Robert concentrated on painting wildlife more than other Highwaymen. His paintings might include cowboys, cattle, hunters, hunting dogs, deer, wolves, wild hogs, and turkeys. In keeping with his focus on depicting the landscape accurately, his palette was more restrained than most of the other painters in the group. While Robert may not have been as prolific as other Highwaymen, his attention to detail and his intense love for the landscape he depicted made him one of the better artists in the group.