Black was born in 1947 near Jackson, Mississippi, on a Barlow plantation to a poor, farm worker family. It is probable that he heard Old Master or John stories when he grew up. These are trickster tales where the slave, known as John, outwits the white plantation owner by being inventive and cunning. The black man’s superiority is evidenced when he dupes the boss man.
Al Black says he’s been talking all his life and his stories reflect the continuous contests he has with his customers and those in power over him. He readily explains with pride, “I know how to talk with white people. See, I was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. I know what to say out of my mouth.” He was taught that if he didn’t speak correctly in the presence of white people, he might get lynched. Story goes, he’d seen people get killed for mouthing off, and his mother had taught him how to speak carefully in order to keep him safe. No matter what the Highway Patrol called him when they stopped him on the road, his response was,”Yes sir.” He knew how to get satisfaction by working the system. But as is true in the John stories, Al could also dupe a fellow worker, and Al tells many tales of his grand successes.
In spite of not having a driver’s license, Al drove a cotton truck when he was 13 or 14. At the young age of 15, he left home to labor in the fields with the migrant workers after his black supervisor told his mother he’d take care of him. He picked potatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables and fruit.
Black had a strong work ethic and leadership qualities and his superiors trusted him. Before long, he says he was driving the migrant bus without a license. About this time in his life, Al believed he had everything he needed. According to Al, when he was 16, he had a driver’s license and a car, and was sent to various southern states to drive people here or there. Black says he lived “the life.” Five years later, he returned home to Mississippi in a new car. The boss man, however, was uncomfortable with Al’s stories of grand achievements, fearing his plantation workers might want to follow Al’s path. Al says some did leave, a common response throughout the South in the early to mid-twentieth century, when blacks heard about better opportunities.
By the age of 21, Al felt as if he had mastered his place in the world. He had a way of asserting himself through hard work and a talking approach that functioned as a survival skill. He understood the power of presentation and storytelling. But, in reality, he had only just begun to hone his skills as a salesman.
In the early 1960s, Al Black made his way to Fort Pierce with the migrant workers. He later landed a job with the Fort Pierce Typewriter Company, cleaning and hauling typewriters; he soon convinced the company to hire him as a salesman. Before long, Al was introduced to Alfred Hair, a young man he quickly admired for his entrepreneurial skills. Black watched the impressive assembly line for churning out paintings that Hair had devised. In 1964, he was not particularly interested in painting and was hired as one of Hair’s first salesmen. He began by walking into offices and saying, “Good morning, my name is Al Black. I’m representing the Alfred Hair artists. I’d like to know if I can take up some of your time.” If the answer was “yes,” he’d continue; if it was “no,” he’d move on.
Standing six feet two inches tall and presenting himself as a pleasant, soft spoken man, he was often invited in. He quickly became known as the guy who could sell anything to anyone. Because the paintings were almost always loaded into cars still wet, they sometimes got damaged en route. Al learned how to repair them, an expertise that necessitated knowing how to mix colors and mimic brushstrokes. He later painted some skies and waterways on Alfred Hair’s paintings before moving on to creating his own landscapes.
Story goes that so many paintings were selling with Hair’s name on them, sometimes Al signed his name to keep from saturating the market with Alfred Hair paintings. Occasionally he would sell a painting for more than the usual price and he’d pocket the extra money. He had other scams as well. Jim Fitch, a central Florida art collector, reports that in one short period of time he received several calls in the central Florida area from concerned (or irate) customers. Apparently a Highwayman named Robert Butler had stopped by several businesses claiming that he needed money to purchase a new car battery. In exchange for the funds he needed, he promised to come by in a few days with a painting. Eager to help the painter, money was forked over again and again, but the paintings were never delivered. It turned out the man with car trouble was Al Black posing as Robert Butler, and Al had no intention of returning to the establishments with paintings.
After Alfred Hair died in 1970, Al kept painting and selling on the road. He liked selling his own work because he didn’t have to share the profits. In 1970, he married Theda Denmark, a “grader” who inspected tomatoes. They had two children and divorced after 10 years of marriage. The marriage suffered from Al’s life on the road, but for several years he kept the relationship together with gifts and sweet talk. These were financially good years. Black claims that at one time the couple owned three Cadillacs.
In the 1980s, the demand for landscape paintings had dried up and crack cocaine moved across the country like a heat wave. Audrey Crowell became Al’s new partner and she did her best to keep him away from drugs, sometimes succeeding for long periods of time. But Al eventually fell under cocaine’s spell. By 1987, Crowell was so disturbed by the crowd Al kept that she ended the relationship. Black claims he started taking the drug to limber up for painting, but it did more than that. He says he eventually worked himself into a habit that cost him $1,000 a day.
Al began owing money and paintings to people everywhere. Eventually, some of the money he needed to support his drug habit was coming from Lila Pultzer, an older white lady friend who was taken by Black’s smooth way of talking. She had purchased Black’s paintings in the 1980s. After her husband died in 1991, she and Al became close. Some say she was a patron and an investor; Al claims they were lovers. Most everyone agrees that she went to extreme lengths to help Black with his painting career. When asked about her, Al says, “She loved art and a black man.” After Al’s brother died in Mississippi, she gave him her car so he could drive back for the funeral. She was good to him, Al says, and a lot of her money ended up in his pockets. Pultzer’s nephew was furious about the relationship and his aunt’s goodwill, often confronting Al with accusations of fraud. Al’s response was to say nothing, he had learned when to keep his mouth shut.
In 1994, Jim Fitch found Al Black in a St. Lucie County jail awaiting trial on a cocaine charge. Using a photo, Fitch confirmed that an unidentified painting he had was Al’s. He left the snapshot with Al and with it was able to prove to the other prisoners that he was an artist. Not long afterward, Fitch searched for him again. This time he found him in a depressed Fort Pierce neighborhood where men were drinking out of bottles wrapped in paper bags and Al was looking for money to get high. He tried to convince Fitch that he needed money for paint, but by this time Jim knew Al pretty well. Al Black had hit rock bottom.
In 1997, Black was sentenced to 12 years in the Central Florida Reception Center, just north of the Bee Line Expressway (now called the Beachline) in east Orange County, for a sting of crack cocaine charges related to bilking money from Lila Pultzer. Although there is disagreement about Pultzer’s willingness to support Al, he was found guilty of fraud and ordered to pay restitution of $820,933. By the time Al got to prison, he knew he needed help. Reflecting on this period in his life he said, “You can have all kinds of troubles but you don’t know trouble until you have crack cocaine trouble.”
It was Jesus, he claims, that got him off drugs. Once he got to prison, he asked the Lord to come into his life and take the taste of cocaine out of his mouth. And the Lord did. He came to Al as a bright light and took the cocaine away. Free of his drug habit, Al soon tested HIV positive, although he says that was just something he faked, because prisoners who were sick were treated better. Al was still looking for ways not just to survive, but also to succeed beyond the rest of his peers.
Al told the other inmates that he was an artist, but like before, no one believed him. In 1998, Dr. Dianne Rechtine, a prison physician, read an article about the Highwaymen. She wondered if the Al Black she knew was Al Black the landscape painter. As soon as she asked him the question, she knew the answer by the satisfied look on his face. She asked him to paint a mural using acrylics instead of oil on the wall in the medical center waiting room, a request that was not unusual in Florida prisons at the time. The painting was a huge success and Al quickly began painting every blank wall he could.
Al Black became a celebrity and his painting career took off once more.
In August 2001, Al was transferred to the Tomoka Correctional Institute in Daytona Beach. He painted murals in this facility and began concentrating his efforts on creating landscapes on canvas boards, selling them in the crafts shop and giving them to his ex-wife to market. So many people became interested in his art that he was allowed to meet visitors by the gatehouse. When his talent was requested at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, Al went there to paint murals. His prison life continued to get better. Any suggestion that he might have HIV had been dismissed. He was healthy, drug free, and a respected artist. His murals transformed several correctional institutions and Al was viewed as a model prisoner.
By the time he left prison in December 2006 on early release, Al had painted well over 100 landscapes (some sources say over 160) in hallways, offices, waiting rooms, dining halls, dorm rooms, chapels and hundreds of acrylic landscapes on canvas board. Importantly for Al, he was treated well in prison; he was trusted and well liked. He claims that he was treated better in prison than he was on the street. Being locked up had been a blessing and Al credits it with saving his life.
Today Al Black is back in Fort Pierce painting Florida landscapes and paying restitution for his crimes to the Humane Society, a charity Lila Pultzer supported. Now people come to him to buy art and he sells with the same smooth talking finesse and enthusiasm that he has always used.
Al is proud to report that he has been drug free since his early days in prison. He still paints outside his home in Fort Pierce, although he says standing for long hours is hard on his legs. Friends, writers and potential customers come by to watch him paint and listen to his stories. For several years he’s been teaching Richard Burgan, a white artist, to paint like a Highwayman. As it was with Al, Burgan learns mostly by watching and working on his own canvases. Al says what he really needs to do is to teach Richard to sell.
The best way to identify Al Black’s paintings are with the three birds he places in his landscapes, representing the Trinity.
While in prison, as was the case in the early Highwaymen days, Al had to revise his tools and working surface. He couldn’t use oils, since they could be used to get high, so he had to adapt to acrylics, which dry far more quickly. A plastic cake spatula was employed as a pallet knife since metal implements are highly limited in prison. Once Al became known for his murals, churches and individual admirers donated materials. He even got a cart with wheels that could be easily moved from one work space to another.
Al’s prison murals come in all sizes and shapes. His compositions fit the available space well, sometimes incorporating a sign or painting over a fixture of some sort. A Royal Poinciana tree might be positioned on a sliver of a wall between two windows that slices through a flowering bush or an inviting water scene can break through the cold grey wall of an otherwise drab prison setting. These works in correctional settings are meditative and calming. They invite the outside world in and allow viewers to transcend the truth of their physical reality, as they remind a prisoner about the pleasing sensations of being on the outside. In some respects, these gifts “landscapes in a prison setting” could be more powerful than those found in any of our top art museums. What they give inmates have value beyond what anyone could pay Al Black for an actual painting.
These days Al spends more time on each painting, as perfecting his skills is important to him. This ongoing practice reflects his increasing expertise. According to Al, prison may have saved his life, but painting made him who he is today. However, the work isn’t finished until it is sold.