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Monday, September 26, 2022

Famed Black artist Al Black brings iconic Florida Highwaymen group’s art to Gainesville

Black is one of the original Highwaymen

 Al Black signs his name as the finishing touch on the Highwaymen mural Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2022.
Al Black signs his name as the finishing touch on the Highwaymen mural Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2022.

Ominous storm clouds and dense humidity joined forces Tuesday morning, almost as if they were pressuring Al Black to paint his latest mural quicker. The setbacks lacked any chance of hindering the renowned artist: At 80 years old, he had already completed half of his mural in three hours. 

“Anybody else, it would’ve taken them three days to paint what I have painted this morning,” Black said.

Black is known for being one of the founding members of the Florida Highwaymen, a group of 26 African American artists who became famous for selling landscape-clad canvases out of car trunks in the early 1950s when segregation laws prevented the group from selling in galleries. In 2004, the collective was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.

Black finished his new 8-by-34 foot mural, located on the corner of Northeast Sixth Avenue and North Main Street, Wednesday afternoon — a full day before he was expected to wrap up the project. Throughout the day, a handful of people shuffled through to watch Black’s painting unfold.

The idea for Black’s mural was commissioned by 352walls/Gainesville Urban Art Initiative, a local project that aims to increase the city’s public art ventures since 2015. Raquel Vallejo, the project coordinator at 352walls, kickstarted the historic mural project after her fascination with the Highwaymen led her to present the opportunity to Black in person. 

The newest mural, which used acrylic paint and unconventional coloring to depict a serene lake site, is a reimagined piece that Black once painted on the walls of Florida State Prison while he was serving a 12-year sentence for fraud

Though Vallejo chose the art, Black was the one who realized his original design left too much open space for the size of his recreation. The addition of sporadic lily pads throughout the lake was a spontaneous choice made by Black on Tuesday. 

Vallejo said she was excited to have an Al Black painting for the city, but also thrilled the community could watch the artistic process unfold in person.

“It’s a performance,” Vallejo said. “It’s not only visual; it’s a whole complex sensory thing because you get to feel the essence of the artist and see how it is that they do it.” 

The mural, which was originally painted at 602 N. Main St., consists of panels that allow the painting to be transportable. Vallejo said this allows for the proper preservation and frequent transport to be set up at various locations around Gainesville. 

“A mural by him at this point in time when there are two other original Highwaymen — it’s a gift,” Vallejo said. “The opportunity showed up, and I took it.”

Of the 26 Highwaymen artists, nine are considered to be the original founders of the group. Besides Black, the only original members alive are Roy McLendon and Sam Newton.  

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The Florida Highwaymen are known for their particular landscape scenes created with oil paints, a medium complicated to work with and even harder to transport. 

The group was not only revolutionary in the art it created, but inspiring in how it sold and marketed its work to overcome racial barriers. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016 and highlights the Highwaymen’s story with a collection of 18 of their paintings. 

Black was accompanied in the painting process by Fabian Sanchez, a 47-year-old local Gainesville artist. Sanchez, whose usual style of art is graphic design, said he enjoyed working in Black’s traditional landscape style, which forced him to slow down and just paint.

While Sanchez was present to help paint where it was dangerous for Black to reach, he said it felt like Black was the one helping him. 

“It doesn’t matter how old I get; I’m still going to be learning,” Sanchez said. “There’s always someone that has more knowledge and skill that can share with you.”

Originally the Highwaymen’s relentlessly persuasive salesman, Black taught himself what he knows about art from fixing wet paintings that were damaged from travel. Now, in his late career, Black is keen on passing these skills to the next generation of artists — including artists of Highwaymen lineage known as the “legacy generation,” Vallejo said. 

Michael Hill, a UF history senior, greeted Black with an eager handshake Tuesday morning. He was introduced to the Florida Highwaymen in 2007 when his mother found an original by Alfred Hair, one of the movement’s original founders, in a dumpster in Vero Beach, Florida. 

Since then, Hill developed a knack for Florida history and plans to start collecting his own Highwaymen paintings after graduation. He said Black’s latest mural is an invaluable addition to the city, especially because of the legendary artist behind the painting.

“In regards to the time from the Civil War up until basically the 21st century, Gainesville was a spot for a lot of prominent Black leaders,” Hill said. “With the Highwaymen all being Black artists, I think honestly their art would fit very well in this community.”

Contact Averi at akremposky@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @averijkremposky.

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Averi Kremposky

Averi Kremposky is a senior journalism major at the University of Florida. When she’s not covering music, art and culture beats for The Avenue, you can find her going to a concert, finishing another book in one sitting or submitting to the latest Taylor Swift album theory.


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