Starting in the late 1950s a group of largely self-taught African American artists in Florida created colorful landscape paintings and sold their pieces across Florida while traveling down I-95 and Highway A1A. These twenty-six artists would become known as “The Highwaymen.”
The first Highwaymen artists Alfred Hair and Harold Newton were taught by landscape artist A.E. “Bean” Backus. Hair developed a rapid style of painting that allowed him to create beautiful works very quickly. At the time, the paintings cost Floridians and tourists $10 to $35 dollars. Today, those same pieces may be valued anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.
In the past few decades, there has been a renewed interest in Highwaymen art. The vivid sunsets, windswept palm trees, sandy beaches, and tranquil marshes are now widely sought after as art and as pieces of Florida history. A small number of the Highwaymen artists continue to paint today.
Cocoa’s Highwayman, R.L. Lewis
Robert L. Lewis is a Highwayman from Cocoa, Florida. Born in Cocoa on the Indian River Lagoon, Lewis was the third of six siblings. A sports injury during his junior year in high school forced him to be assigned to art class at historically black Monroe High School in 1958. His high school art teacher Alberta Leisure encouraged his artistic talents. Lewis was inspired by Highwayman artist Harold Newton while in high school. He was encouraged by a family friend to pursue art at the college level.
Lewis attended Edward Water College in Jacksonville, Syracuse University in New York, and Florida A&M University in Tallahassee before graduating in 1966 with a B.A. Degree in Art Education. He worked as an illustrator for Boeing upon graduation, and taught Art Education in Brevard County for 32 years. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, he also worked at Brevard Community College (now Eastern Florida State College) as an art instructor. Lewis taught for the Cocoa Village Art Adult Education Association on a part-time basis for over 10 years.
R.L. Lewis was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004. His work was featured at the Smithsonian as part of the exhibition “A Florida Original: R.L. Lewis and the Highwaymen Tradition” in 2003-2004. In 2003, he received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for his continued work in preserving the Highwaymen tradition. Robert L. Lewis continues to live, work and paint in Cocoa, Florida today. He is a frequent guest, lecturer, and teacher at schools and galleries throughout Florida.