Growing up in Miami, A J Brown doodled on the edge of her paper in class.
As she grew older, her paintings grew bigger and bolder. Brown’s first mural was on her bedroom wall in Pembroke Pines.
Today, America’s First Family, the Obamas, owns one of her masterpieces, a showcase of her historic handiwork passed down to her through an original “Florida Highwayman,” Johnny Lee Daniels.
“Art is just a feeling in you to do something creatively,” said Brown, sitting on a padded bench in front of her artwork in a Pensacola art gallery. “It’s like gift from God.”
Brown’s God-given gift is on display in Pensacola through Thursday as part of an art exhibit at Marty Campbell Gallery on Palafox Place.
The exhibit is part of a benefit for the Eagle Fund of the Andrews Research and Education Foundation at the Andrews Institute to help defray costs of treatment for servicemen and women wounded in combat.
Dubbed “The Florida Highwaymen: The Last Great Art Movement of the 20th Century,” the exhibit showcases a unique chapter in Florida’s cultural history.
Better known today because of exposure and exhibits, the Florida Highwaymen used to be an anonymous group of artists who sold original paintings of Florida landscapes from the trunks of their cars.
In the early 1950s through the 1980s a group of these African-American artists used vivid and bright colors to display their work.
They painted wind-bent palm trees, serene sunsets, churning oceans and bright red Poinciana trees.
Using oil-based paints, they labored in their garages and backyards on inexpensive Upson board, framing the artwork with crown molding from old houses.
Then on the weekends they would travel and sell their highway paintings to hotels, offices, businesses and individuals who appreciated the artwork for about $25 a piece.
According to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, the original group consisted of 26 painters, and 18 of them still are alive today.
Sylvester Wells is among the survivors.
The Jacksonville native continued to paint bright, vivid artwork until his sight went bad four years ago.
“I wasn’t painting to be in the Hall of Fame, I was just making a living and doing the work I love the most,” said Wells, dressed in black with a bushy gray beard beneath his dark sunglasses. “It was a good way to make a little money.”
Wells remembered that the fledgling artists often painted together, but rarely did they sit in front of the landscapes and paint while admiring the natural beauty around them.
Instead, they painted in a tree-shrouded backyard or a carport or shed, imagining the scenes from imprinted images of their surroundings.
Using construction materials, they cut costs. They worked fast so they would have more art to sell, mostly along A1A and U.S. 1 on Florida’s east coast from Daytona Beach to Miami.
“Every man paints his own picture,” Wells said. “Everybody’s painting is like a fingerprint. Each one is distinctive.”
Even though they would not be called the Highwaymen for several decades later, these artists created a legacy of work that attracts admirers and buyers across the country.
Their paintings today sometimes go for thousands of dollars and are collected by people like Steven Spielberg, Michelle Obama, Jeb Bush and a growing allegiance of private collectors.
Pensacola’s Johnathan Newlin saw a painting at an antique market in Destin 15 years ago and fell head over heels in love with it.
The bold colors in the artwork displayed the beautiful untouched Florida landscape. It was the work of R.A. McLendon, an original Highwayman.
Newlin couldn’t take his eyes off the flaming red leaves on the Poinciana tree, unaware that he was looking at a piece of Florida’s history.
“I’m not an art investor, I just like good art and usually go a museum to learn about it,” said Newlin, as he brought in his treasured artwork for display at the exhibit.
“It’s really cool to meet (McLendon’s) son,” Newlin said.
Nearby stood R.A. McLendon Jr., the last living second-generation Highwayman.
He grew up in Fort Pierce, and started taking his art seriously when he was 17 years old. They sold work to mostly white people who lived in trailer parks and mansions, because most black people didn’t have disposable income to spend on artwork, he said.
McLendon started a family and couldn’t make ends meet simply through selling art. He did odd jobs and spent nearly 15 years working as an electrician in a Florida school system until his father persuaded him to renew his love of painting.
“I’m glad my dad pushed me back into it,” he said. “I am the only one left linked to the original Highwaymen.”
For Brown, her link is the love of painting rather than the connection through lineage.
Her mentor, Johnny Lee Daniels, known as the master instructor, took Brown under his wing. She learned a technique that she took to another level. Called dimensional art, the illustration is raised above the canvas, almost appearing three-dimensional.
The bright, bold leaves on the Red Royal Poinciana popped out on the canvas in front of her in the Pensacola art gallery.
“Art comes from a higher authority. I can’t describe it,” Brown said. “You don’t know why you know how to paint, you just do it.”
Brown is humbled that Daniels handpicked her to pass down his legacy, the only woman among four men in Daniels’ group. Their friendship grew into a business relationship that quickly became a kinship.
After Daniels asked Brown to become his business partner in the Highway Man Art Gallery in Fort Pierce, she also became a godchild in the Daniels’ family.
“I was chosen to carry on his tradition of the Highwaymen,” Brown recalled. “Our friendship grew into a relationship that is as close as any family member.”
In May 2009, the Florida Highwaymen Artist and History Center Inc. received tax-exempt status as a non-profit, with the goal of opening the first highwayman history museum.
As a second-generation Florida Highwayman artist, Brown was appointed the first assisted secretary, authorized to perform all major duties of the elected secretary, and member of the By-Laws Committee.
When Daniels died in 2009, his family got her to construct his gravesite monument with his artwork. His heirs appointed Brown the legal highwaymen artist and business partner in Daniels’ Highwaymen Art Gallery.
“Johnny Daniels is an essential part of American history,” Brown said. “I am so honored to have such an extraordinary connection.”