The Author
Foreword by Gary R. Libby
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Catherine M. Enns is a fourth-generation Floridian and native of Fort Pierce, where many of the Highwaymen began their journey. Her lifelong interest in art began in her youth at the studio of A.E. Backus, the Highwayman mentor with whom she and her family had a close friendship. Enns has written about art and artists for more than thirty years. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida.

An Interview with Enns

How did you first learn about the Highwaymen artists?
I think almost everyone living in and around Fort Pierce in the 1960s and 1970s had some knowledge about the black men who drove around selling paintings out of their cars. You couldn’t go to a beauty parlor or a dentist office in those days without running into them. Harold Newton and Alfred Hair were well known in both the black and white communities then. Of course, they weren’t called the Highwaymen and it wasn’t until later that I discovered that there was one woman, Mary Ann Carroll. I was driving my children to school one morning when I heard a report about them on National Public Radio. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

What was your relationship with Backus?
My family goes back several generations with the Backus family. Beanie Backus’s father and my great-grandfather, Robert Gladwin, owned a boat building business together in the early 20th century. The friendship continued with my parents and when my brothers Michael and Gregory showed an affinity for art and began taking lessons from him. My sister is married to Beanie’s great-nephew. But more than that, Beanie had a major influence on how I lived my life and what I decided to do as a career. I began going over to his studio when my brothers did in the late 1960s. He had a way of connecting with people, no matter who you were. He was great with kids because he never talked down to them. He encouraged us to read James Thurber, Hemingway and Steinbeck. We listened to his record collection and in the midst of a time when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were popular, there were a group of kids who fell in love with Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. We saw that there was a bigger world beyond what was there in our little town. I think his views on life, nature, politics and culture stayed with us.

Why did you decide to write the book?
Even having grown up in Fort Pierce , it took a transplanted New Yorker, Jonathan Otto, to show me the true value of what took place not far from my doorstep. He had the vision to realize the importance of the Highwaymen as a phenomenon, not only artistically but as another untold chapter of black history. It was important, he told me, to grab on to the story and all of its many dimensions. Jonathan asked me to write the book based on my intimate firsthand knowledge of the story.

How did you conduct your research for the book?
I actually began research about the Highwaymen in 1998 for a magazine article and I built on that information with extensive research that included interviews and looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of paintings.

Who is your favorite Highwayman artist?  Why?
Well, I think that all of the Highwaymen artists have some outstanding merit as artists and interesting side stories, so it would be difficult to begin to choose a favorite among them. Many of Harold Newton’s paintings are stellar. As a person, Mary Ann Carroll is incredible. You can’t help but fall in love with her because of her honesty, wit, tireless enthusiasm, good nature and kindness.

What are your 3 favorite Highwayman paintings?  Why?
Three paintings out of thousands? As difficult as it is to narrow down, I love Harold Newton’s The Boarding House. It’s not a typical landscape but falls more in the genre category. It shows an old two-story house, a big Royal Poinciana tree and a sassy woman in orange with her backside to the viewer. That was Harold painting a scene he liked because it meant something to him, not because he thought he was going to sell it.

One of things I have enjoyed is walking into someone’s upscale home and unexpectedly seeing a Highwayman painting hanging on the wall. I think one of the most interesting aspects of this story is how people from all different walks of life adore these paintings. The landscapes speak to them in a unique way that other art does not and I really appreciate that. My favorite thing, however, is to see those bits and pieces of my native Florida in their paintings. They are fill-in-the-blank landscapes that are familiar, yet totally new.

What do you think makes the art most compelling?
It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white—making art isn’t the first thing that springs to mind if you want to become a millionaire, particularly back in the 1960s. The Highwaymen did not consider any of the obstacles. They just did it. And all of those paintings sum up their attitude that cares less about the way it should be done than the fact that they could do it their own way. It is a body of work that is a tribute to the human spirit. The paintings tell their story and I think that is what is so compelling.

What is the most inspiring part of the story to you personally?
We can’t really know what it was like for the Highwaymen when they all started out. It must have been excitement, disappointment, hope, discouragement, fear and confidence all at the same time for them. They thought far beyond what was expected of them and that is what I find most inspirational. If there were one or two artists who did this, I am not sure it would have had the impact that the Highwaymen as a group have had. They were young guys, living in Jim Crow South without many options open to them. So what did they do? They taught themselves to paint and they defied all conventions in getting it out to the public. They went around the usual idea of what “art” was and how it should be sold. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched to us now because we are living in a post Andy Warhol time when commercial and fine art aren’t mutually exclusive, but to think about this back then is simply amazing. It is a story that says essentially to find your own way and don't let anyone tell you what you can't do.

What do you think Backus would think about the notoriety of the Highwaymen today?
I think Backus would love that the Highwaymen have received so much recognition and appreciation. It is a perfect testament to how Backus wanted everyone to look beyond skin color. I think he might have been a bit surprised, too. He had a number of very talented artists paint at his studio and I think he hoped that each one of them would be successful. I think that after Alfred Hair died, and because of the vagabond nature that surrounded many of them, he might have thought that the black painters would fade away. He would get a real kick out of this.

What is your hope for the impact your book will make?
I hope that this book is able to contribute to the many stories of how African-Americans persevered throughout American history. We all know the tales of bravery in the face of slavery, segregation and the struggle for Civil Rights. But this is a different story altogether. It is one of artistic innovation, entrepreneurship, perseverance, and recognition.