Imaging the Land
Landscape painting in the United States, like any other kind of art, communicates something about the time and place of the artists who crafted the works. The way we see landscape paintings echoes the way we see the land. In the seventeenth century, America’s new land was thought of as a refuge that existed outside the tide of European corruption. In the nineteenth century, writings by the Transcendentalists and paintings created by artists associated with the Hudson River School idealized nature and associated it with an indescribably close relationships to God. Land was seen to have unique powers of regeneration. These ideas extended to private property, the safe suburban home, and thoughts about homogeneous communities.
The United States was a newly imagined place that accommodated some people and dismissed and oppressed others. Slavery and Jim Crow laws functioned to disallow non-whites into the dreamscape. Consequently, blacks and Native Americans were marginalized and removed from the newly conceived utopia.
There were artists who painted Florida’s landscape before and during the time that Backus and the Highwaymen did their work. Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (c.1533-1588), a Huguenot artist who was a member of Jean Ribault’s expedition to the New World, painted Florida’s Native Americans and the land’s flora and fauna. William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), Winslow Homer (1836-1910), and Herman Herzog (1832-1932) famously painted Florida’s stunning beauty. And folk artist Earl Cunningham (1893-1977) painted Florida seascapes that are part memories and part fictitious scenes. Writers and musicians have also fed their imaginations fed through this striking landscape, especially the waterways. Bill Belleville writes,
Rivers have a mystical quality to them, a way of helping us remember something we thought we had forgotten. The process of appreciating Florida’s rivers has nothing whatsoever to do with ownership or territoriality. To love a river enough to want to write about it, paint an image of it, or compose a song to it is to have the capacity to at once hold tight to it; and, just as completely, to let it go.
Florida’s landscape can also be harsh and extreme. When Bean Backus’s mother came to Florida on September 3, 1899, she wrote that it was one of the darkest nights she had ever seen. She was wearing a large leghorn hat with twenty-seven ostrich feathers in it. The mosquitos were so bad that she kept plucking the feathers out of her hat to swish the pesky insects away from her three children. By the time the family arrived in Fort Pierce, there were no feathers left in her hat. She later burned smudges of insect powder to keep the mosquitos away; and she brushed the window screens with kerosene to protect them from sandflies.
The Backus family lived on the outskirts of Fort Pierce on a pineapple farm. Bean’s father had to travel by sailboat to town to get groceries. This was not a welcoming, romantic place. It was an inhospitable place where grit and hard work were required.
At this time, Northerners didn’t ordinarily venture past St. Augustine, which was a winter resort for the wealthy. The rest of Florida was seen as a wasteland that offered a lot of sweltering heat, clouds of pesky insects, and ubiquitous alligators. Miami had only a few stone buildings and a smattering of shacks. There were, however, trapper’s cabins and fishing camps positioned in appropriate places.
It was during these times that the promise of a different kind of Florida was in the air. Believing in the dream, in 1894, Henry Flagler opened up the east coast of Florida with the development of a railroad extending from St. Augustine to Palm Beach. Two years later, it reached Miami. He also built a series of luxury hotels and the population of Florida’s east coast grew. Land was cleared for citrus groves, ranches, and farms.
Fifty years ago, Florida’s natural landscape was everywhere. There were lots of swamps, scrublands, and clean water. Development was on everybody’s mind, and since 1940, Florida’s population has grown almost ten times. Today, Florida’s waterways are in dire trouble. The Indian River Lagoon is especially bad in St. Lucie, Indian River, and Martin Counties where, according to Richard Baker, President of the Pelican Audubon Society in Vero Beach, an annual discharge of 143 billion gallons of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee pours into the lagoon through the St. Lucie Estuary. The Indian River Lagoon is now full of toxic algae, much of which comes from the sugar industry.
As we abuse the land and our waterways, we also transform them. In a worrisome stab at Florida’s current landscape, T. D. Allman claims, “Modern Florida has been founded on the notion that nature could be trained to be cute, almost like a family pet.” Indeed, gardens and carefully arranged walkways have replaced the swamps, mangroves, lagoons, and thickets. To some degree, Florida’s natural beaches have been replaced by swimming pools, and corporate America has given us water parks and human made beaches at theme parks that are cleaner, safer, and bug free.
When the Highwaymen painted in the 1960s and 1970s, they primarily worked outside because that’s where they had space and that’s where they might catch a cool breeze. While air conditioning was transforming the Sunshine State during this time, in 1960, only one in fifty African American homes had a cooling machine. By 1970, over two out of three white homes had air-cooling, but only about one in ten black households had an air-conditioner.
A majority of African Americans did not live with the comfort of cooled air until 1980. While affluent Floridians were basking in cooler inside air, the Highwaymen were outside, experiencing the landscape more intimately. Sea breezes and the sounds of nature, instead of the whir of a machine, defined their environment as they painted. Sometimes a friend might come to watch and learn. Often, stories, music, jokes, and laughter filled the air. White people, the Highwaymen’s customers, purchased the experience from which they had become more isolated.
Many art historians, art critics, and artists have pointed out that the black experience is all about improvising and reusing, moving and adjusting. While we may not initially see the Highwaymen’s work as African American, according to artist Rashid Johnson, “Regardless of what you make, in all likelihood, some sort of cultural experience is projected onto the work.”
African Americans had to form their own communities during Reconstruction. Once Jim Crow laws were enacted, they were relegated to the more undesirable parts of the landscape that largely made them invisible to whites. Although they had separate and less favorable beaches and places to fish during Jim Crow times, they made these spaces their own. These waterfront areas became festive and celebratory places where they built solidarity and community identity. In spite of Jim Crow, African Americans all over the South and throughout the rest of the country built lives for themselves in the limited and secondary spaces that they were given.
African Americans gained power, in large part, by envisioning space—places where they could celebrate, communicate with God and nature, and move about with freedom. In Fort Pierce, African American life centered on and around Avenue D. Fishing spots, beaches, and other areas in the landscape were established. Some places came with restrictions such as favorite fishing spots that were off limits during certain hours. But the segregated part of Fort Pierce, for the most part, was theirs. The Highwaymen established painting spaces where they grew their creative and economic identities through painting.
George Lipsitz writes about the importance of what he calls “black special imagery” in the lives of African Americans. “Black spatial imaginary,” he writes, “teaches us that every problem has a solution, that the terms and tools of oppression can be turned into instruments of emancipation, [and] that strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
From this perspective, we might say that the Highwaymen were not only painting landscapes that would support themselves and their families; they were also solving another problem as they moved into spaces that were not designated for them. Much like the lunch counters, beaches, swimming pools, and front row bus seats that were being contested during the Civil Rights era, the Highwaymen painted the landscape that they believed belonged to them as much as anyone else.
For Alfred Hair, Harold Newton, or any of the other Highwaymen to seriously take up landscape painting, in many ways, was a breach of conduct. Creating the world, constructing ideas about it, and communicating those ideas was not something black people were thought to do. By painting landscapes, they moved into the role and space of the artist, as defined by whites. By painting landscapes, they claimed the land that whites had established as theirs.
Alfred Hair, Harold Newton, James Gibson, and other Highwaymen were often shown or given photos of Backus paintings. From these images and direct access to their mentor’s work, they constructed their versions of his compositions. Almost all of Backus’s works have a Highwayman re-creation. He was the artist who painted specific places and spaces. For most every scene Backus painted, a Highwayman re-versioned it.
This fact is not to diminish the Highwaymen’s work. Rather, it is to understand their way of claiming a landscape that had not readily been accepted as theirs. It echoes the movement of sitting in white restaurants. It was a bold but quiet move to claim their power and their space. But once they had established their space, in a highly celebratory manner, they made it their own. And after some Highwaymen saw what Hair and Newton were doing, (Charles Walker for example), they sidestepped Backus’s compositions. They began to create more directly with their own experiences in the landscape.
Some of the Highwaymen’s paintings look excessive: perhaps more colorful and vibrant than any landscape painting should be. Some say they look garish—extreme. But, according to Lipsitz, the visual excess in African American art of their time was a signal that the individuals who made it expressed a life worth living, regardless of how difficult or full of failings they were. These paintings are emphatic. They are truthful in both their feeling and their representation of the world.
Lipsitz offers another way we might look at the Highwaymen’s paintings. He writes about the way frequent listeners understand gospel music. In many African American communities, it isn’t so much the strength and quality of the singer that matters; rather, it’s how hard the singer tries to make the song come out right that makes it work. Louis Armstrong experienced music this way and always appreciated working with less skilled musicians if they tried hard. The effort, in effect, lifts the work into an equal aesthetic realm. How the audience listens and responds can be as important as the way in which the music is played.
The same is true about jazz as it established a practice that gave everyone a place to have a voice, but together created a more beautiful whole. It is noteworthy that in the 1960s and 1970s, when a young person wanted to learn to paint the same landscape scenes, they were welcomed and embraced instead of seen as competition. Customers seemed to react in a similar manner. Many bought more than one painting and they responded to the effort as well as the quality of the work. They experienced the work contextually, a way in which artwork is best understood and appreciated today.
Reflecting a class-based system in the art world that continues to exist today, but in a more tempered form, Bean Backus’s patrons were generally not interested in Highwaymen paintings, as they were seen to be cheap knockoffs. Today, Highwaymen paintings can be expensive, although still somewhat affordable for the middle class. These artworks represent a story of artists’ resilience and triumph. They also represent images of a landscape that is increasingly unavailable to the average person. They are paintings of a Florida that dismiss theme parks, condos, and urban sprawl. Florida still has undeveloped land, but much of it has been damaged and trashed. Highwaymen paintings remind us of a landscape that once existed, and the possibility of having that experience once again.