Behind the Book – Discovering the Florida Highwaymen
By Laura Kelly Robb
Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, lived her last years in Fort Pierce, a beach town on the Atlantic coast of Florida. She lived for a while on a houseboat and later in a modest cement block rental house. A visitor can see the makeshift desk and black Underwood typewriter Hurston used for her last pieces.
Through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, I traveled to Fort Pierce to learn more about Hurston’s life through a week-long seminar led by Professor Heather Russell. She told us the story of how Hurston had fallen out of favor with many critics until Alice Walker resuscitated her legacy of novels, stories, and African American folklore.
While in Fort Pierce, cultural ambassadors from the African American community helped us understand other aspects of the town’s history. The Florida Highwaymen, they said, had gone a long way toward putting the town on the map. I had never heard of those artists, but our guides forgave my ignorance and led us to a gallery run by James Gibson, one of the Highwaymen. Sitting on a stool, as casually as if he were telling us about dinner the night before, he spun tales of his companions in art, the twenty-five men and one woman, who made up the official list of Florida Highwaymen.
They knew each other, some from long contact, some only by sight, and some were blood relatives. They were eager to get out of the sweltering fields and as far away from the punishing orange harvests as possible. Hope came in the form of post-war prosperity, air-conditioning, and a wave of middle-class tourists. Black and white, the vacationers were driving the length of Florida. The Highwaymen’s images of sunsets, palm trees, and scudding clouds were the perfect souvenir.
From the mid-1950’s until the early ‘80’s, the loose group of self-taught artists produced, by conservative estimate, over 100,000 paintings. Sold out of the back of a car, sometimes on the side of the highway, for a bargain price of twenty-five dollars, the paintings traveled with their new owners all over the fifty states. Al Black, a prolific painter and also the lead salesman, could sell water to a whale they said. Money was made; oranges were not picked. James Gibson smiled and called them the best of years.
After the seminar, the story of the Florida Highwaymen stayed tucked away but not forgotten. I read reports of the uptick in interest and I saw episodes of Antiques Roadshow where the art experts valued Highwaymen paintings from $5,000 up to $10,000. I wondered how art professionals dealt with a body of work as large as the one generated in Fort Pierce.
That question serves as a starting point for my mystery, The Laguna Shores Research Club (TouchPoint Press, September 14, 2022), featuring an art cataloguer, an art collector, and an ambitious museum curator in St. Augustine. The protagonist, Laila, believes her chance to get ahead in the art world lies in protecting the Florida Highwaymen. When her friend and fellow researcher turns up dead, Laila is the one who needs protection.
The Laguna Shores Research Club
Laila Harrow knows the best way to track down anything—or anybody—is to ask Billie Farmer. As the brains of the Laguna Shores Research Club, Billie teaches fellow members how to reach into the ether and pluck out facts.
Counting on Billie’s guidance, Laila promises the St. Augustine Museum a catalogue of Florida Highwaymen paintings that will catapult her standing in the art world. But when Billie dies suddenly, Laila is forced to pull herself out of the darkness to think like Billie and follow the facts.
Fact: Billie’s good health makes the diagnosis of a heart attack unlikely.
Fact: Her actions the night of her death hint at a looming threat.
Fact: Her condo has been turned upside down, her computer and phone missing.
With support from her friends and family, Laila vows to get to the bottom of Billie’s death. Then one last piece of information comes to light.
Fact: Laila is at the center of a dangerous game.
Laura grew up in New York, the fifth of six daughters. She earned a BA from the University of Toronto and went to work in Vigo, Spain. She lived in a small village and studied part-time at the University of Santiago. Returning to the US, she taught Spanish and History for Seattle Schools. She began to submit short stories and write novels while getting coaching at an Iowa Writers Workshop summer session. She now writes full-time, with a sequel to The Research Club expected in 2023. With her husband Paul, she lives in St. Simons, Georgia and takes breaks from the heat in Friday Harbor, Washington near her three adult children.
Instagram: @BookHardy and LauraKellyRobb_Author