Mary Ann Carroll
Mary Ann was born to a sharecropping family in Georgia. Her mother taught her to be obedient, once beating her with a peach tree branch. In turn, Mary Ann taught her children to be obedient, but she never whipped them. Her grandmother taught her how to work hard. She learned that money grows on trees, but you have to pick it off. The best of times were during harvest season, but because she didn’t know anything else, she thought that life was pretty good all the time. Now, when she looks back at here early years she knows her family had rough times.
Mary Ann’s religious faith came early. She remembers going to a tent service with her sister at an early age that sealed her connection to God. She now ministers at a “hole in the wall” church, explaining, “No one gets a salary at Foundation Revival Center, Church of Redemption. We just keep it going so the door can stay open.” Mary Ann says she walks with God through every challenge.
Mary Ann never had formal training in art. The closest she came was in a science class; she remembers drawing a thermometer. The teacher was so impressed she posted it on the bulletin board. Mary Ann says that this was her first art exhibition.
Harold Newton taught Mary Ann to paint. She was drawn to him because he had a car with flames painted on it, and she liked things that were different. She was about 16 when she first saw him painting on 20th Street and Avenue D in Fort Pierce. He was painting a brilliant red Royal Poinciana tree on Avenue Q a few days later. While she had drawn with pencil before, Newton’s colorful images intrigued her. She also knew that Harold made money selling his artwork. So Mary Ann asked him to teach her how to paint. Obliging, he showed her how to mix colors and make frames. She then practiced these newfound skills at home.
Mary Ann quickly got to know other painters in Fort Pierce because she was one of the few artists who had a car and could make selling on the highway possible. Her first road trip was with Livingston Roberts and a few other painters. They went to Melbourne and sold out at the first medical building they visited on US 1. Both she and Livingston peddled four paintings. Stunned and exhilarated to have earned $70, she began learning negotiating skills.
Sometimes Al Black sold her paintings. In the 1960s when she earned $100, she’d feel rich; it was substantially more money than she made at other jobs.
Although Mary Ann was fearful to sell on the road alone, she did it because she had to. Stashing a gun in the glove compartment, she traveled as far as Jacksonville. She knew there was racial unrest throughout Florida, and people didn’t always treat her well. Out of necessity, she sometimes took some of her children with her, but they were instructed to stay in the car.
As a saleswoman, Mary Ann liked the direct approach. She knew that if potential buyers saw the paintings, they might overlook laws about soliciting. She prepared herself for rejection and learned to move on when turned away. Eventually, she found interested customers. When she had a successful trip, returning home with money, she was “as happy as could be.” Throughout it all, Mary Ann says the Lord was always there to give her support.
Mary Ann stopped selling on the road in 1997. By that time, she was performing other jobs to make money and was selling her paintings through art shows. Sometimes customers came to her. By then, she commanded $100 for a small painting and $1,000 for a large one.
Among the Highwaymen painters, Carroll’s resilience and grit is legendary. She had responsibilities the other Highwaymen didn’t have or didn’t have to handle alone. Besides painting landscapes, she took on many other jobs, although she acknowledges using welfare during some really hard times. She worked as a carpenter, an electrician, a house painter, a pastor, and an organist at the Foundation Revival Church of Fort Pierce. She cut lawns and worked on cars. Her mother used to collect scrap metal, including old cars, which together they would cut up with an ax for money. Her best skill, however, was never giving up.
While other women took time to do their hair and get their fingernails painted, Mary Ann couldn’t indulge in these sorts of activities. Her life was never fancy or feminine. “Life is not about being a male or a female,” she explains, “It’s about surviving.” As difficult as it was, she succeeded in raising seven responsible children.
Mary Ann has been a pastor in various churches for decades. Like her ancestors and so many others in black communities, she says she turns to the Bible for comfort and support and easily relates to heroes like Moses and David, who sought and won freedom for their people, and Joshua and Isaiah who spoke truth to tyrants. She explains that spirituals songs sung to Ezekiel help her understand that new life can come to communities that are oppressed. The church continues to be Mary Ann’s lifeline.
These days, Mary Ann Carroll often travels and speaks about her experiences as a Highway-woman. (She points out the gender discrimination in the naming.) In 2012, along with James Gibson, she was recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama for her talents at the Florida House in Washington D.C. Mary Ann acknowledges that all the recognition she now receives for her artwork is wonderful. But what she likes most about painting is that it “brings peace to your mind.”
Like many other painters, some of Mary Ann’s works are more successful than others. When she succeeds, she can easily be judged as one of the more accomplished Highwaymen. She paints a variety of scenes, from ocean waves crashing on beaches to peaceful sunsets with brilliant orange skies. She depicts perspective well, creating foreground and background that invites the eye to move through her rich landscapes. Her textures and her color palettes are varied, demonstrating her keen ability to express a wide range of emotions.
Mary Ann Carroll is grateful that the money she earned from painting helped raise her children. But she also likes the idea that her work has given so many people pleasure. “People used to buy them because they were cheap,” she claims. “They could get their wife a birthday gift; they could get their cousins a Christmas gift. It was a nice thing they could get at a cheap price to please someone….It was an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”