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Artist on the outside

How the work of one of the famed Florida Highwaymen ended up behind bars in an Orlando jail

Photo: Barry Kirsch, License: N/A

Barry Kirsch

Gray trees, bearded in Spanish moss, stand at attention before soft, glowing sunsets. Birds fly overhead, their reflections mirrored in the water below. This is the iconic imagery associated with the old Florida landscape.

There’s nothing quite so scenic that can be seen from behind the bars of the Central Florida Reception Center, a prison located on the east side of Orlando. The best view available around the jail is that of the cow pastures that spread out beneath the power-plant silos towering over the 528 Beachline Expressway to the beach. For most of the inmates, the natural environment exists only in memory.

And it was from memory that artist Al “Blood” Black painted the pastoral, Florida landscapes that adorn the walls of the laundry room, cafeteria and hallways of the jail, where he served 12 years for fraud.

Black was one of the legendary Florida Highwaymen, a group of African-American traveling artists who peddled their idyllic, stylized Florida landscape paintings door-to-door and from the trunks of their cars, beginning in the late 1950s.

The works of the Highwaymen were once written off as kitsch – the kind of art your grandma living in Boca might hang over the sofa, or the stuff you’d see on the wall of a crusty, beachfront motel room – but since the mid-1990s, when the work of the Highwaymen was rediscovered by arts enthusiasts, the value of the paintings has soared. What once were cheap souvenirs became coveted art objects, and today paintings by one of the 25 men and one woman who are part of the Highwaymen movement can easily fetch upwards of $1,500 apiece.

Black, now 65, isn’t the kind of artist who was born with a palette in his hand; the tools of his original trade were a steering wheel and a smile that stretches across his broad face. He was a traveling salesman who started with the Highwaymen by selling their work, but he eventually started painting, too. His biggest body of work can’t be viewed at a gallery, though, and the only ticket that can get you in to see it requires a mug shot and a jailhouse jumpsuit. It’s all housed here in the Central Florida Reception Center.

When inmates are booked into to the jail, they’re assigned jobs to do. Some work in the cafeteria, others in the laundry room. Black was asked to do what he liked best.

“The warden asked me if I could paint some murals of my landscapes,” Black says. “They heard of me in the news, that I was a painter, so they asked me to paint.”

In the years he spent locked up, Black painted more than 80 murals on the jail’s walls. They’re in halls, offices, storage rooms, the outside gymnasium, waiting areas, the chapel and dining hall.

Black was born in 1946 in Barlow, Miss.,and he grew up picking cotton and doing odd jobs. He quickly developed an urge to travel, so when a farm contractor offered him a job recruiting workers, he took it. He often found himself in Florida, and in the 1960s, he took a job selling typewriters for the Fort Pierce Typewriter Co. During his sales travels, he often encountered a group of African-American artists, dubbed the Highwaymen, who painted Florida landscapes and sold them door-to-door or right out of the beds of pickup trucks.

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