Rodney Demps’ artistic talent extends beyond his landscape paintings. The interior and part of the exterior of his home are covered with drawings, paintings, and collage that document the ways in which he has experienced the world. His landscape paintings are unique and emotionally charged. As a man rich in imagination, the boundaries between Rodney’s life and art are fluid.
Before Rodney was born, his family lived in Long Island, New York. When they moved to Fort Piece, they settled on 17th Street. Rodney came into the world on November 9, 1953, during a storm that shut down the electricity all over town, including the hospital.
His great-grandmother, a Native American from Nassau, raised him during his early years. She was a shrewd businesswoman who owned a grocery store and a nightclub. His mother, who was very young when he was born, lived down the street. His father was Thomas Demps, the director of the Bethune-Cookman choir. He traveled frequently and Rodney rarely saw him. As a young boy, Rodney carried groceries from his great-grandmother’s store to his mother’s house. Every Sunday, he went to Palm Beach to visit an aunt. They had mango trees that made a strong impression on him.
Rodney’s great-grandmother died of cancer at the age of 67 and he went to live at his mother’s house. He attended Lincoln Park Academy and in the 8th grade Rodney became interested in art. Zanobia Jefferson was his art teacher and he remembers creating a very large painting while in her class. She took him to meet Bean Backus who gave him his first art supplies and a few painting tips as he watched him work. Backus would begin by making a light sketch on his canvas, which Rodney referred to as a blueprint because it was all in blue. He would then work into the canvas, creating the landscape. Rodney remembers, “He used to paint real slow, everyday, close up. He had a gift.” He describes Bean’s work as so detailed that he would paint the shadows of the leaves in the trees. He says Backus was like Disney in his attention to detail. Understanding the commitment it took to paint as Backus did, Rodney says, “In order to paint like that, he had to paint for years and years and years.” He also recognized that because he put so much effort and skill into his work, it sold for far more than Alfred Hair’s paintings.
Rodney spent time with Alfred as a teen. Alfred’s wife, Doretha, would pick him up from school and take him to their house where Alfred would show him how to make frames and paint skies. After Rodney painted a series of skies, Alfred would follow up by depicting the landscape. Rodney remembers that Alfred “had piles of money,” and he painted very fast, so fast that his “arms moved like a machine.” Like Backus, Alfred painted every day.
Rodney soon started creating his own landscapes, but he didn’t go on the road selling because he was so busy learning to paint. “Oil is messy,” he explains. “Then the more you do it, it gets cleaner and cleaner until you get it real sharp.” When Hair died in 1970, Rodney started painting with Sam Newton who lived on Avenue D. He liked Sam’s energy and recognized his talent.
After transferring to and graduating from Fort Pierce Central High School in 1971, Rodney went to Florida A & M where he majored in Physical Education and Naval Science. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1977, he joined the Marines. He spent two years and eleven days in Quantico, Virginia, until he learned that he was to be transferred to Japan. Not wanting to go to Japan, he was sent home to Fort Pierce. While in the Marines, Rodney says he started out as an errand boy and then became a member of the CIA. He read battle plans.
Rodney married Shearon Hill in the 1970s and had three children; the marriage didn’t last. Rodney coached and taught physical education to grades 7-12 for twenty-four years. During this time, he stopped painting. When he retired in 2001, he once again began to paint.
Today, much of Rodney’s attention is spent on his identity as a military man. He believes he is still functioning as a Marine and that all kinds of people come to visit him, or at least they drive by his house. They include Muammar Gaddafi, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., Denzel Washington and an angel. His mother, he says, disappeared the day he saw Gaddafi. Most of these figures look at him but say little to nothing.
These sightings influence many of the drawings he creates on his walls. He has depictions of military men, football players, historical figures, the Challenger space shuttle, and a collage of his great-grandmother’s grocery store. Words or titles sometimes help inform a scene, such as is the case with a note carefully written to President Reagan. These skilled drawings, paintings, and collages are floor to ceiling and in every room. There is little furniture in the home, except in the bedroom, although televisions are plentiful. In one of the smaller rooms he creates his Highwaymen paintings; he has a few going at a time.
The wall paintings are extraordinary, many of them reflecting a style that varies considerably from his landscape paintings. They can be detailed and realistic. He describes the interior of his home as “pieces of the puzzle that is my life,” which he began shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. While he is proud of being a Highwayman, when asked how he thinks of himself, he thoughtfully and deliberately responds, “I am a Marine.”
Rodney describes his work as a cross between Backus and Hair. While he explains that his paintings have the movement and expression of Hair and the detail of Backus, Hair’s influence is more apparent. Rodney’s work is expressive, some refer to it as surreal. His works are painterly, abstract, and emotional; they perhaps express an internal landscape more than a physical one.
Rodney sells his work cheaply, often for as little as $20, although he says he has sold works for as much as $100. “It’s not a constant thing,” he explains about his landscape painting. More recently, most of his attention goes into working on the walls of his home. While his landscapes are depicted in oil, he primarily uses enamel paint on the walls.
Rodney never sold on the road like so many of the other Highwaymen did. Instead, he sold his work from his home, which he continues to do today. On occasion, he travels to art shows to make sales. Full of talent, he is an artist whose landscape painting plays only one part of his abundantly creative world.