A few weekends ago, my older son was invited to attend a special painting session with Aletha Butler, a second generation Florida “Highwayman” artist. If you are not familiar with this famous group of artists, here’s a little snippet on their history.
The Florida Highwaymen, a group of 26 African-Americans, broke convention to paint beautiful iconic landscapes. Originating in the mid 1950’s, an era marked by racism and poverty, these self-taught entrepreneurs mentored each other while they painted on basic materials like Upson board for canvasses, and crown molding for frames. Local galleries shunned their work, so they peddled their art from car trunks along area roadways, hence their name. Their art freed them from work in citrus groves and labor camps, and they created a body of work that has become not only a timeless collection of a natural environment, but a symbol of determination and belief in oneself. The surviving Highwaymen, now in their sixties and seventies, are an important chapter in America’s culture and history, indeed, a National Treasure. Their self-determination in the face of adversity remains an important story of perseverance, inspiration and creativity.
We were very excited to learn that siblings were welcome to attend this outing as well so I left Big Trouble with Daddy (can you imagine him with an abundance of paint and a huge landscape to destroy?!) and headed over to Mission San Luis to meet the artist and learn more about her painting style.
The day couldn’t have been more perfect for the outdoor session; it was sunny, in the low 70’s, with a calm, cool breeze. The group of children who attended was small enough that Ms. Butler was able to interact with everyone easily. We were delighted to learn that she had brought her mother and father, Robert Butler, an original member of the Highwaymen, along to the session as well. The trio of Butlers proved to be lovely people; extremely accommodating and friendly to all of the children.
Now, my mother’s paternal side of the family are all very artistic. My great-grandmother was an artist, as was my great-uncle, and most of the distant relations have some sort of artistic ability. As much I as wanted to inherit this ability like my mom and brother and sister, it was not in the cards for me. I am a very creative person, but artistic? Not so much. My older son is very much like me in that he desperately longs to be artistic, but his strength lies in the “art” of writing vs. the visual arts. We knew this heading into the session, so I was interested to see what both he and my daughter (who shows a little more promise in the arts, at least when she takes her time) would come up with.
The kids watched Ms. Butler explain how she starts by using shapes and mixing colors and it was amazing to watch her make it look so simple (it definitely is not simple). My daughter started off trying to paint the landscape like Ms. Butler did, and it looked really good until she discovered that mixing the colors and just spreading them across the canvas was more fun – she was “exspearminting”. The flower she had been working on was quickly covered by randomness.
My son chose a different route and tried to paint a copy of an amazing painting Ms. Butler had done of a frog on a leaf.
I could tell what he was going for, but the colors kind of just started blending into each other and he started getting a little frustrated when no one else could tell what he was painting. At that point, Mr. Butler came over and started talking to my son about his painting. He had just finished painting a picture with another student, so my son bravely asked if he would mind painting with him. I thought he might have been tired from making the rounds earlier, but he sat right down with my son and gave him a one-on-one lesson about how he creates paintings.
He used the weird colors that my son had used and placed them in the same parts of the canvas that my son had, but reinterpreted it to create a landscape.
IT WAS AMAZING. And it only took him about 15 minutes to complete his painting. He even signed it and gave it to my son to keep, while sweetly asking my son to send him a signed piece when he gets older in exchange.
I know my 7-year-old doesn’t fully comprehend how special that moment (or the gift of the picture) was, but I sure do. I am going to frame both pictures and hang them in his room so that we can remember this experience.
Both Robert and Aletha Butler, as well as many of the other Butler children, still work as artists and sell their beautiful paintings, so if you are in the market for a beautiful landscape painting, please check this extraordinary family out. You won’t be disappointed.
**If you are in the Tallahassee area, Ms. Butler’s work will be on display at the FSU Fine Arts Museum from May-July as part of the Generations exhibit. My son will also have a piece there too as part of a class legacy project!**