This weekend, you have a chance to meet one of Florida's legendary artists.
Robert L. Lewis, 71, one of the original Florida Highwaymen, will be in Ozona on Saturday, May 12.
The Florida Highwaymen play a very important part in Florida history and have also been referred to as "The Last Great American Art Movement of the 20th century." From the 1950s through the 1980s, the 26 black painters traveled throughout the sunshine state creating quick paintings that featured beautiful Florida sunsets, waterscapes and landscapes. They sold the paintings along the roadside, often from the trunks of their cars, at prices as low as $20. The Highwaymen created an estimated 200,000 paintings, according to the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
Their artwork gained fame in the mid 1990s when Jim Fitch, an art gallery owner in Sebring, wrote an article describing the traveling landscape artists as the "Florida Highwaymen".
The artists have since been honored with a spot in the Florida Artist's Hall of Fame. Their works are displayed at Florida's state capitol and in exhibits in other parts of the country, including Washington, DC.
Robert L. Lewis spoke with Patch about his experience as one of the original 26 Florida Highwaymen artists.
1) How old were you when you created your first painting?
The first painting I did I was in 11th grade at historically black Monroe High School in Cocoa, that's where I'm from. I had hurt myself playing football and I was sent to the art class to get the elective credit. While there, I encountered a little white lady by the name of Alberta Lee. She was an artist and a poet in her own right and she taught at historically black schools in Brevard County.
She came to class and did an etching of an Indian River lagoon scene. I was born and raised on the Indian River lagoon systems, so I was able to mimic what I saw her do, because I grew up in that river system. A lot of the Highwaymen, including myself, were painting scenes representative of the Indian River early on in our careers. It's what's been called "Indian River School Art", in large part because most of the artists are from that system.
So, Alberta Lee came to class, she brought a watercolor set, and she actually was able to influence me with that watercolor set and I did my first painting in 1958 in that class. From that point, she was always in my ear about how I could possibly use my artistic ability to make a living. Maybe even get an education. Certainly it was inspirational at that time.
2) How did it feel to sell your first painting?
My goodness, the first painting that I sold… well, you know it's one thing being able to paint, I consider it a gift that becomes a talent. I always say a gift is meant to be shared not spared. The first painting that I sold was in the mid to late 1960s. I can't say that it was anything monumental.
3) Do you remember how much your first painting sold for?
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, my motto back in the day was "Paint 'em Fast, Sell 'em Cheap" and I painted not just landscapes, but portraits and wildlife, too. I would like to think I was as diverse as any of the original artists. My first painting was about 20 bucks and as I got further into the 1970s, I diversified and sold more sizes. My you're taking me back…. I sold some 8 x 10s, one for $10 or two for $16. I've even seen some in an antique mall that had that very same price on the back.
4) When you started painting, did you think you would become famous?
I think simply the name "Highwaymen" created some sort of renaissance period in 1994-1995 when Jim Fitch coined that phrase. It gave an identifiable name to the art that's always been here. People like to collect things that they can identify. My art was and is about Florida, so it seemed to resonate with the audience. In some ways I like to think that the art made me colorless, because it was about the landscape and was not so much about what I looked like.
4) What is your favorite memory, when it comes to the early days of your career?
My favorite memory... I traveled with another artist in this class, Sylvester Wells and he's actually from Jacksonville. Of the original Highway artists, I'm the only one that was raised in Brevard. Ironically, we teamed up in one way shape or form and we actually painted in my back yard for more than 20 years. We had this slogan we called "floating" in the old days, traveling especially on the east coast. We picked strategic areas, banks, attorneys, businesses. We would go in the geographic area where we thought there were people that were a certain level of affluence; they had money and would be interested in the Florida landscapes. That's probably my earliest memories and most fond memories, not to mention the motto "Paint 'em Fast, Sell 'em Cheap".
5) What kind of advice do you have for aspiring painters?
There's a proverb that says, "Where there is no vision the people perish" and I think in order to be successful as an artist, whatever kind of art that may be, graphic, commercial, whatever... you have to have a vision. You have to develop vision. You have to pursue it with purpose, a passion, and most of all persistence and maybe not all in that order.
You can meet Robert L. Lewis from 11am to 4pm at Antiques and Uniques in Ozona.
Lewis will be working on a painting and will sign autographs during his visit. A new painting of Honeymoon Island will raffled off that day, and Lewis will also bring some of his other paintings.
is located at 303 Orange St. N (727) 253-4976