Who are The Florida Highwaymen?

Florida Highwayman R. L. Lewis finishing an original piece. | Photo via Florida Memory

If you’ve stopped by the Polk Museum of Art lately, you’ve likely noticed an exhibit titled “The Art of the Highwaymen: From the Woodsby Family Collection.” The exhibit features roughly 70 pieces of art depicting Florida’s wide range of landscapes, from beaches to wetlands and swampy marshes, painted by a group called The Florida Highwaymen.

But who were the Florida Highwaymen? Formed during the 1950s, the Highwaymen were a world-renowned group of 26 African American self-taught landscape artists who traveled statewide selling their works door-to-door. By the time the group ceased their operations in the 1980s, they had collectively painted approximately 200,000 pieces and spent 30 years traveling Florida’s highways, selling work from the trunks of their cars. 

Highwayman Curtis Arnett (center) with former Attorney General Pam Bondi (left) and curator Jeanna Brunson (right) at the Museum of Florida History | Photo via Florida Memory

The Highwaymen are revered for their work ethic and impact on the art community. Their works are celebrated as having both national + international significance, both for the quality of the work and for the social circumstances surrounding the segregation-era entrepreneurs

Of the 26 painters, Robert Butler is the only one credited with having painted all Florida ecosystems. Robert was commissioned by the Florida Farm Bureau to complete a piece paying homage to Florida’s Old Capitol in 2006, just two years after the entire group of Highwaymen was inducted into the Florida Hall of Fame in 2004.

Robert Butler (left) at the dedication ceremony for his commissioned Old Capitol piece | Photo via Florida Memory

As of this month, 8 of the original 26 Florida Highwaymen are still living. In their 30 years of being traveling artists and entrepreneurs, the group of 25 men and one woman left a mark on contemporary art history. 

Art enthusiasts, history buffs, Sunshine State nature lovers, and Lakeland residents looking for an afternoon activity alike can stop by the Polk Museum of Art through Sun., May 22 to see the artists’ work. If you’re looking to own a piece of history, check Ebay for a painting you can bring home.