As one of the most active Highwayman painters, Robert Lewis can often be found at festivals or in community settings doing demonstrations. His son Robert Lewis, Jr., refers to him as “a life-long teacher,” and maybe also as a preservationist.
Robert was born in Cocoa, Florida, the third of six children. His father was a railroad worker who built the railways. His mother was a seamstress and she supported Robert’s early interest in drawing. Coming from a strong working-class family, Robert never had to work in the fields or the citrus groves.
He attended the historically black Monroe High School in Cocoa. After an injury playing sports, he was assigned to an art class. Here he met his biggest supporter, a white artist and art teacher named Alberta Leisure. One day in 1958, she brought a newspaper article to class about Harold Newton, who was making a name for himself as an artist. Robert was impressed by Newton’s talent and met him a few years later. By the time Robert was a senior in high school, Ms. Leisure had encouraged him to go to college to become an art teacher.
Robert attended Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, Syracuse University in New York, and Florida A & M in Tallahassee, earning his bachelor’s degree in art education in 1966. He worked as an illustrator for Boeing for a short time and then turned to teaching where he retired after 32 years.
Robert began selling his paintings in 1967. He continues to be active as an artist, often working with organizations aimed at preserving Florida’s landscape. He is frequently involved in fundraisers for nonprofit organizations, and has a long-standing relationship with the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and the citrus industry. His work is sometimes referred to as “Florida’s history on canvas.” However, Robert’s paintings are not limited to the Sunshine State, as he paints landscapes of areas in many other southern States. One series of his art, for example, features the Chesapeake Bay.
Robert has a longtime marriage and three children. Although he worked full-time as a teacher for decades, he also worked part- time at Brevard Community College for 15 years as an Adult Education instructor. Additionally, he taught art at Cocoa Village. Once retired from teaching, other art activities filled his time. Robert’s wife and oldest son often accompany him to art events, helping out as they can. He owns a gallery in Cocoa that is managed by his son, Robert Lewis, Jr.
Occasionally, Robert is questioned about his identity as a Highwayman, since he didn’t paint with them. He claims it is the commonalities in their work that marks his membership in the group. He knew the Newton brothers, and in the early days, he painted on Upson board like most of the Highwaymen. Still, he distinguishes himself as a trained artist who went to college and became a certified art teacher.
While Robert is proud to be named a Highwayman, it is his dedication to teaching that marks his identity. His eldest son, Robert Lewis, Jr., who helps manage his career as an artist, says that teaching is “a gift meant to be shared, not snared.” Although Robert, Jr. is an artist in his own right, when discussing his father, he prefers to keep the attention where he feels it belongs—on the named and recognized Highwayman. As a way of expressing his admiration for him, he is working on a book about his life and artwork.
Robert’s subject matter is more extensive than most of the other Highwaymen. Besides lush landscapes, he paints cows, deer, dogs, cowboys, birds, and buildings. His range of foliage is diverse and he sometimes paints still life. He likes to work in series. For example, he might do several paintings on turtles or a group of paintings on a specific place such as Oakland, Florida. He often does commission work. People come to him with a photo or two and ask him to paint their prized cow or their ranch. Mostly, his work is associated with preservation efforts. He was once asked to paint a seascape of an area on the west coast of Florida that was threatened by a shopping center. Encouraging people to save the unspoiled beauty of Florida’s landscape (or for that matter, natural landscape in any state) is one of his primary missions.
Like many of the other Highwaymen, Robert strives to please his customers. He once painted a picture of a ranch for a rancher. After the painting was done, the rancher returned and asked Robert to put a horse in the painting. After that, he wanted his dog and a treasured cow in the image. Lastly, he asked that the name of his ranch be painted on a sign that was posted on a tree in the painting. At that point, he was satisfied.
Robert Lewis paints with a variety of tools, anything that can easily make a mark. Clouds, for example, might be made with his fingers. His newer paintings are more refined than his older images and his color palette has become increasingly imaginative. He signs his paintings as “R. L. Lewis.”