Curtis Arnett is one of the youngest Highwaymen. Inspired to paint at an early age, he attributes most of his success to Hezekiah Baker who mentored him. Ambitious in many ways, he earned a black-belt in karate by the early 1970s.
Curtis was born in 1950 in Greenville, Florida, a small town near the Florida/Georgia line. Curtis and his family moved to Fort Pierce in 1955. He attended Lincoln Park Academy and graduated from Dan McCarty High School.
His interest in art began when he was very young. He enjoyed drawing pictures of favorite characters from popular culture, such as Clark Kent and Lois Lane from Superman comic books. After receiving a watercolor set for Christmas one year, his drawings became paintings.
Curtis had never heard of oil paints until Alfred Hair came to his school to demonstrate some basic painting techniques and how to construct frames. After Alfred’s presentation, he went home and began experimenting. He later explained, “I used leftover paint from paint cans I found at home construction sites and painted on construction board.” The first time he saw oil paints in tubes up close was when he watched Harold Newton paint.
When Curtis met Bean Backus, he began to think seriously about painting landscapes. He remembered, “One day I rode a bicycle to the Indian River to fish and saw a paint palette in the backyard where A.E. ‘Bean’ Backus lived. His studio was open and I went in. God! His paintings were beautiful! I asked Mr. Backus if he would teach me, and he said, ‘No, but bring your work and I’ll help you.’He gave me two brushes, a palette knife and 10 or 12 tubes of paint. Back home, I started painting on plywood and later on Upson board.” Inspired by Backus and Hair, Curtis began spending time with other aspiring artists in his neighborhood.
Curtis sold his first painting, which was 12 by 24 inches, for $6 when he was sixteen years old. By the time he was seventeen, Curtis was selling on the road, earning $25 a painting. “I would just get in my car, load up my paintings and go,” he said. “My primary route was US-1 to Delray Beach, then west to Okeechobee and Arcadia and north to Daytona. I stopped at professional offices and places of businesses to show my work.” Curtis says he remembers being welcomed almost everywhere he went. Customers would ask when he was coming back and he would set dates to return with more paintings. He quickly discovered that the best days to show up at a business were paydays.
Robert Butler writes that Curtis would visit him in the 1970s when he lived in Okeechobee. They discussed painting techniques and the kinds of tools they could use. Curtis was interested in fan brushes and subject matter that extended beyond what was typical for the other Fort Pierce painters. Like Robert, Curtis loved the interior swamp lands of Florida and was greatly influenced by his hunting experiences.
After selling on the road for a while, Curtis met Hezekiah Baker. Curtis showed him his work and Hezekiah began mentoring him. “He looked at what I had and started me all over again. I got my experience from him,” Curtis explained to a reporter. Soon after, Curtis started using acrylic paints and charging $300 to $1,000 for his paintings.
Curtis has four children, several grandchildren and lives in Fort Pierce.
Curtis Arnett’s paintings grew from scenes of palm trees and rivers to seascapes and depictions of Florida’s interior. His later works stand out from other Highwaymen landscapes because they are created using acrylics, a water-soluble paint that dries more quickly than oil and is better for painting sharp edges. He is best known for his work centering on cypress trees, swamp scenes and hammocks. Curtis likes to paint with reflections in the water, with both shape and color. His work is dreamy and serene, evoking a calm peacefulness.