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Examples of Al Black's prison murals from the book The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black's Concrete Dreams, University Press of Florida, 2009 (Gary Monroe)

Meet Al Black: Florida's Prison Painter

Jul 5, 2012 (Morning Edition)

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In the 1960s, Al Black could be found cruising up and down Route 1 in his blue-and-white Ford Galaxy — with a trunk full of wet landscape paintings.

At the time, he was a salesman who could snatch your breath away and sell it back to you. As artist Mary Ann Carroll puts it, he could "sell a jacket to a mosquito in summer."

"A salesman is a con-man," Black readily admits himself today. He's a storyteller. And does he have stories to tell.

Black was born on a plantation in Mississippi. One day, he says, a crew boss came by, needing more hands to pick crops. Black was 15 when he left for Florida, and it wasn't long before he met the Highwaymen — as they eventually came to be known.

The Highwaymen: A small group of self-taught African-American artists from the area around Fort Pierce, Fla., who got their start selling vivid landscapes — speed-paintings — from their own cars because, in times of segregation, galleries didn't allow them in.

Black offered his service as a salesman on their behalf.

"But Al Black being Al Black," says historian Gary Monroe, would "generally make more than the artists would make" — by hiking up the sales price and pocketing the difference. He was selling for everyone, says Monroe, who has written a book about the artist.

Then, just when the "Great Florida Art Rush," as they called it, really took off, the group's 29-year-old leader, Alfred Hair, was murdered. Inconsolable, many of the Highwaymen stopped painting altogether, and Black was left without anything to sell. Until he discovered a new painter: himself.

He learned the tricks of the trade from repairing paintings he'd thrown in his trunk. But times had changed. The market for these paintings of pastoral Florida had all but dried up. And for Black, things took a turn for the worse.

"In 1997," writes Monroe, "Al Black was found guilty of fraud and possession of drugs. Ironically, this low point marked the beginning of Black's most productive period as a painter — a decade spent in correctional facilities."

When it was discovered he was a Highwayman, the warden gave Black unprecedented permission to paint murals throughout the facilities, where they remain to this day.

Now out of jail, Black is one of the few Highwaymen who still paints in the old style: outdoors, several canvasses at a time.

"I can be down and out," he says, "feeling bad that morning. But if I can make it out to where I paint, everything picks up ... and makes me feel real good."

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Southword is a multimedia collaboration between Oxford American magazine and NPR spotlighting the people, places and trends that shape the modern American South. Dave Anderson, filmmaker for Oxford American, teams up with NPR journalists to produce stories about a region that continues to evolve in unexpected ways.

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