Florida Highwaymen in Windsor, Canada
Opening Night: August 12 from 7-10pm.
Common Ground Art Gallery
3277 Sandwich Street
Windsor, Ontario, N9C 1A9, Canada
Tuesday to Saturday, 10:00am to 5:00pm.
Closed Sunday and Monday.
Anatomy of A Traveling Art Exhibit by Tony Hayton
Aug 11, 2016
My mandate: Get the Art Out of Storage and On the Walls for Exhibit!
When opportunity knocks, you either answer the door, or walk the other way. Isn’t that true in life how you have to make choices when they arise? I have to admit that I am the kind that opens the door to adventure and the unknown and to live the life experience. That is what happened when I got an email from Common Ground Art Gallery in Windsor Ontario just 4 weeks ago, saying that they had space for a traveling art exhibit, that I was working with a collection of African American art from the 50s done by the Florida Highwaymen. It was the opportunity I had been hoping for, to do an exhibit before the next one in Winnipeg in November. I’d have to get quickly organized and take the art out of storage and put it on the road ASAP.
That was only too appropriate though, after all is was Florida Highwaymen art right, and it should be on the road, that is how it started way back then when the Highwaymen sold art from the backs of their cars often still wet. To be clear, the Florida Highwaymen have only been exhibited in Florida, Washington D.C. and once in upper New York state. The word on them is still getting out. But thanks to the United States Embassy in Canada, there had been two exhibits in Ottawa and Montreal this year that received rave reviews. The United Embassy was helping get the art seen and the story told as part of their awareness of U.S. culture campaign in Canada. So the collection was in Canada. By doing an exhibit in Windsor, the art would would be right next to Detroit Michigan and an opportunity for Michiganders to see this beautiful landscape art and hear about the amazing story behind the Florida Highwaymen group. All this meant I had a lot to do and in a very short timeline. The art was in storage, there was no promo or press done, I needed to start planning and working and to get my butt in gear!
Doing this traveling exhibit and taking on this opportunity to do the Windsor show was important to me. For the past 10 years I had been working on getting the Florida Highwaymen known nationally, it wasn’t as easy as I thought. I was struggling because I was a Canadian, living in Canada and my sphere of influence in the U.S. was limited or even next to none. I was dealing with American Art, that no one had heard of, not even a lot of people in Florida knew of them. They had a cult following, but they had flown under the radar when they were being most creative in the 50s and 60s. Perhaps they were being disregarded because they had gone about their art in non traditional ways. Everything about the Highwaymen was non traditional. Number one they were African Americans painting in the south at a time when convention and prejudice and even Jim Crowe law closed the door to them. They were self taught fro the most part. They used construction wallboard for their canvases. They couldn’t use galleries to sell their art because they were Black and galleries were selling only established white artists for the most part. But what they were was an important civil rights story and also an important part of American history. Highwaymen art up until recently was not being accepted by the “art establishment”. Rather the Highwaymen artists were considered as “folk” or “outsider” artists. They were finally getting recognition though and justly so. After 7 decades and 250,000 pieces of work later people was starting to take notice of the incredible and unique story of their contribution to 20Th century art. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and as Mary Ann Carroll the only “Highwaywoman” says there must have been a lot of beholders. There is a raw beauty to the art, the colors dynamic and bold and vibrant. The skill transcended what some people would try and categorize as merely hotel art. There was an urgency to it, jumping out and saying, look at me! Yet it was also powering calming and peaceful and timeless. Back in 50s and early 60s, their art was helping these young African Americans escape the steaming hot orchards and fields and common labor. But in Florida, Blacks simply were not encouraged to do what these young artists were doing. They were going against the norm, they were breaking against convention and the social codes. But what they were doing was making a statement by standing up for their own freedoms and self expression. But they were also just trying to make a decent living. IIt was obvious that I needed to get some promo items created, and do a quick history lesson on the art and the exhibit in Windsor and Detroit! Invitation to the Florida Highwaymen Exhibit to all in Windsor & Detroit
The fun part was going to be unknown adventure and the opportunity to do something relevant and culturally important. Having a teaching tool at your disposal means that you best do a good job in telling the history behind it that makes it an educational project. I had the art for the sole purpose of sharing it, so that the art could be appreciated and the story told, a kind of show and tell. Like all good stories and adventures, timing and good fortune were involved. For me, when I first heard about the Highwaymen art 16 years ago and realizing that theirs’ was a totally unique and emotionally rich historical story that transcended art. Actually the Highwaymen art was a vehicle for a Civil Rights Story, an American Dream story, a story about perseverance and self achievement. The Highwaymen art was also a perfect vehicle for environmental awareness because the art was all Florida Wetlands and featured everglades and savannas and places off the beaten track that I am sure not too many people would actually see. Indeed the Art was more than just Art, and that is why it is so appealing. James Gibson Monochrome Painting circa 1964
The logistics of the exhibit were yet to be done. Accommodation and meals was the easy part. However the budget was tight and the exhibit was only 10 days long. That meant traveling the art had to be done creatively. I had to find a way to get 30-35 large 2′ X 3′ works or art to Windsor Ontario from Ottawa, Ontario, a journey equivalent of traveling from Boston to Richmond Virginia. The plan was to un-crate the art and transport it much the same way as the Florida Highwaymen artists did when they were selling their art up and down the east coast of Florida. I’d lay each painting flat on top of each other, as they nest well into each other because of the type of framing they used, window and door casings. I was hoping I could fit it all safely into back of my van the just like when I moved the collection to Washington DC from Florida. Hopefully I could get enough pieces on board to mount a significant sized exhibit for Windsor/Detroit. The collection had been kept in “as found” condition and only one or two pieces were altered with new frames. The majority of the collection is vintage pieces from the late 50s through the 60s and was by the core early members of the Highwaymen group. That consisted of about 12-14 artists. Sadly 12 of the 26 Listed artists have passed on, 2 just this year. This was playing on me in the back of my mind, the urgency to get the art on exhibit and shown and appreciated while members of the group were still alive to tell their story of their life with the art and how they did it.
As in any good adventure story there has to be a few magical moments to make it compelling. Perhaps for me my 16 year love affair with the Florida Highwaymen story and the art might be interesting. The thousands of miles I have put on both in the air and on the ground. The big question was why was I as a Canadian involved with this relatively unknown but important art group. After all I wasn’t going to keep the art, or bring it over the border, it was American history and it was American art and it was meant to stay there. I reasoned though, that no one had the objectivity I did for the art. The only people that really knew about it were in Florida. They had been exposed to the Highwaymen for 7 decades and they were seen as just local artists, nothing special. I knew of them only by chance and by fate and was immediately enamored at the story and the art. My perspective was different I was familiar with the Canadian Group of 7, 7 white guys who mentored each other while painting the wilds of Canada. I saw the analogy of the Highwaymen to them, except that it was 26 Black artists painting the wilds of Florida and to me their story was eminently more romantic and compelling. I realized that this story to be told and the art seen, that the Nation need to know about it, and I was going to be the one to do it. An unconnected, slightly insane Canadian, living in Canada was going to try and teach America a lesson in their own history and culture. What a fool! But the Highwaymen story made for beautiful romanticism and the art was bold and vivid and alive. The Highwaymen artists themselves were beautiful people too. It was just one of those things I just had to be involved in. Mary Ann Carroll Highwaywoman Artist in Ottawa Canada February 2016
There was a magic moment of good fortune or luck, or divine intervention, call it what you will. That moment came in May of 2015, when just after I had been to Washington D.C. with the thought of giving up on my 10 year dream and efforts of gaining a National awareness of the Highwaymen, with the concept of selling my complete collection. A friend, unbeknown to me, slipped a note, covered in roses, to the United States Ambassador to Canada at an art event in Ottawa, telling of my involvement with the Florida Highwaymen. I was in England on a family trip and when I got back I was heralded to the United States Embassy and meetings with their cultural affairs personnel. Then magical wheels started to roll, you know like the ones that rolled for the Florida Highwaymen back in their heyday. The United States Ambassador Mr. Bruce Heyman and his wife Vicki Heyman, and cultural Ambassador to Canada were interested in bringing part of my collection north of the border to do a Florida Highwaymen exhibit during Black History month in February 2016. So, here was this sudden and amazing gift being presented and an opportunity to bring the art over the border into Canada, which I would never have done, and to put on an exhibit. Just when I thought all hope was lost. And what an amazing exhibit it was. Mary Ann Carroll came up from Florida and did university lectures, TV interviews, radio interviews, newspaper interviews. She said one very important things, well she said lots of important things. But what she said rings true to me now as this exhibit now opens in Windsor tomorrow at Common Ground Art Gallery. She said “that winner never quits and a quitter never wins” I am glad I never quit on my dream to make the Florida Highwaymen Nationally known. The wheels are in motion and the exhibit is up on the wall. It continues on, the Florida Highwaymen’s journeys are not over yet. The art is on the road, and the exhibit has many more destinations and walls to be seen on and the art enjoyed and the story to be told. There is more to this exhibit that meets the eye. I suppose the anatomy of this exhibit is told over many many years and many many miles! There is one more very important thing, next time, when opportunity knocks, make sure you open the door and let it in!