Sam was born in Tifton, Georgia, to a sharecropping family. He moved to Gifford, Florida, in 1962 during his high school years. His older brother Harold, who was already living in Gifford, is considered to be one of the leaders of the Highwaymen. Harold was Sam’s first teacher. Another brother, Lemuel, was also learning to paint at around the same time. Harold encouraged Sam to do quality work and not just paint for a quick buck. Sam later painted with Willie Daniels and Livingston Roberts. He knew Bean Backus who willingly shared his painting skills. In 1995, Sam told June Shih, a Tampa Tribune reporter, “I’d say he was just the guy who didn’t mind sharing what he had with anyone….There were some guys who’d try to copy him stroke for stroke. He didn’t mind that.”
As an adult, Sam lived on Avenue D in Fort Pierce for a while. After Alfred Hair died, Rodney Demps started painting with him. Rodney described Sam in those days as hyper, with a lot of talent. “He’d fry fish and paint at the same time. And his paintings were superior,” he claimed. When Sam moved to Cocoa, Sylvester Wells learned to paint landscapes by watching him work.
Taking Harold’s lead, Sam sold his work on the road. Some of his favorite places in the early days were the Ocean Spray and Minute Maid plants. Sam explained, “If people did not buy, I would just try somewhere else. I didn’t get discouraged. I just stuck with it, but I had a hard time over the years.” One securities broker in Vero Beach collected both Sam and Harold’s work. First Harold came by with paintings and then Sam started coming around. It was Sam who told him of Harold’s passing in 1994.
A popular spot for local Highwaymen collectors around 2000 was Past & Present Interiors in Wabasso, Florida. It was a special mecca for Sam Newton fans. Sam would sometimes set up his easel and paint a landscape or two. Huge crowds would come by to watch him paint and many would purchase his work. Store owner Tom Wilkes told a tale about one South Florida lady who was so thrilled with a painting that she purchased it before it was finished. Sam was selling well during this time. His reputation spread by word of mouth and he was gaining commissions. Clients requested backcountry scenes, especially those of marshes and lakes in Indian River County. They were paying between $300 and $700. This was a good price in those days, especially since his first paintings sold for $10 or $15.
Sam has five children and two stepchildren. Although there have been some hard years, he has supported his family by painting.
His reluctance to speak as a Highwayman goes back to the early days of the group’s naming by Jim Fitch. He continues to paint and sell his works as Sam Newton, often teaching others much in the same way he learned in his youth. He knows that practice is important. His son Tracy and daughter Samurai paint landscapes, carrying on the Sam Newton tradition.
As an independent person, he has never seen any reason to be constrained by the dictates or identity of the Highwaymen group. For example, early in his career he painted larger canvases than the other landscape painters. (Alfred Hair liked 18” x 24” boards for easy stacking.) Throughout the years, Sam Newton has paid attention to Florida’s environment and his work reflects his vast knowledge of the land, skies, and waterways. Sam Newton is an accomplished landscape painter—an individual artist in his own right.