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Meet Al Black: Florida's Prison Painter

Jul 5, 2012
Originally published on July 5, 2012 10:25 pm

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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now the final story in our series this week about the Highwaymen, a group of African-American folk artists in Fort Pierce, Florida. Over the last half century, they painted tens of thousands of oil paintings sold up and down Florida's East Coast. Today, NPR's Jacki Lyden introduces us to the group's legendary salesman.

AL BLACK: Good morning. Sir, my name is Al Black. I have some oil paintings I want to know if you all would be interested if it wouldn't take up too much of you all's time.

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: And with that pitch 50 years ago, Al Black would trawl and up and U.S. 1, looking sharp, driving a 1962 blue-and-white Ford Galaxy, freshly painted Florida landscapes packed in his trunk.

BLACK: And most of the time, they would say yes, I'll look, and once they look, I would sell them something.

LYDEN: Al Black is still a salesman who could snatch you breath away and sell it back to you. Highway woman artist Mary Ann Carroll describes him this way.

MARY ANN CARROLL: He would sell a mosquito a jacket in the summertime.

LYDEN: We sure felt like a couple of very-well dressed mosquitoes after breakfast with Al Black. Take, for example, this exchange with our group.

BLACK: You ever seen a walking catfish?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.

BLACK: Y'all, I thought sure you'd know about a walking catfish. He'll get out on that road right there...

LYDEN: Oh, come on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You mean like hitchhiking?

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Okay. It's a real fish, but here's the turn.

BLACK: They falls right down out of the sky. He'll walk on his tail.

LYDEN: That's how Al Black is. That's how he operates. There's truth to what he says, but he's a storyteller first. Al Black was born on a plantation in Mississippi in 1940. One day, he says, a crew boss came down, needing more hands to pick crops. Al was 15 then, and he left his family to go to Florida.

BLACK: I was a crew leader. I used to carry peoples up the road to pick tomatoes and squash, cucumbers. At last one day I said I don't want to work in the field no more. So I went down to Fort Pierce Typing Company. I said, Mr. Tillman, give me a job as a salesman. He say you can't sell no typewriters. I said, yes, I can. So he said, well, I'm going to give you a chance. So we started going, you know, out on the road.

LYDEN: And what a road that held Al Black and the Highwayman. One day they ran into each other.

BLACK: I said, give me the paintings and let me show you what I'm talking about, and I went in the office. I said I'm Al Black. I said I'm representing A. Hair, artist, wanted to know (unintelligible). He said, oh, I just run three boys out of here a while ago, he said, but you seem to know what you're doing, so come on in. He bought all the paintings, and they went back and told all the other painters, said we met a guy out on that road, said he could sell something, said you ought to see him. About two hours after we got in and everything, all the painters were at my house.

CARROLL: Al was selling for everybody.

LYDEN: Again, artist Mary Ann Carroll.

CARROLL: The only paintings he didn't sell was the ones you didn't give him.

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

BLACK: Carrying them around, paintings would get scarred and I had to fix them. By me being the salesmen, I'm walking around watching the colors that they mix, and I can mix that color, and I would fix them. And so after I learned how to fix some of the stuff, I started to paint myself.

LYDEN: So here's where Al Black went from salesmen to artist. He picked up the brushes, the canvasses, and a patron, a woman, a relationship that would send him to prison. He also picked up a drug habit.

BLACK: That's right. You can have foot trouble, back trouble, neck trouble, all kind of trouble. You ain't had no trouble until you have crack cocaine trouble.

LYDEN: He was accused of almost a million dollars' worth of fraud by a judge who claimed Al Black was more con artist than artist. Whatever the tangled truth of his case, prison walls became another canvass.

BLACK: This is an early morning backwood marsh scene. This is a real popular painting, and I wanted to paint something that it would keep me busy and it'd also make the inmates feel better with the paintings around.

LYDEN: Al Black arrived at the Central Florida Reception Center, a prison and medical facility in Orlando, in 1996, around the same time the Highwaymen were starting to get press.

DR. DIANE RECHTINE: The Orlando Sentinel had published an article about the Highwaymen.

LYDEN: Dr. Diane Rechtine is the retired medical director at the prison.

RECHTINE: And one of my nurses brought this article from the paper and said I believe maybe we have one of these fellows here, and I called the patient into my office. I said are you Al - are you this Al Black? And he said, Doc, if you'll just let me paint, I'll show you.

LYDEN: And he did show her, painting vivid murals right on the prison walls.

BLACK: I felt good when they let me paint. It felt like I wasn't tied down.

LYDEN: During his 12 years in prison, Al Black painted hundreds of murals throughout the state penitentiary system, as other wardens requested his services. By 2007 he was out. Now Al Black is one of the few Highwaymen who still paints in the old style, outdoors, several canvasses at a time.

BLACK: This is going to be a backwood marsh scene. This is going be a moonlight in the Indian River, and this going to be down at the dock where they put the boats in the water.

LYDEN: It's this kind of assembly line technique that makes some people question whether this is really art. Al Black is certain it is.

BLACK: See, for instance, these paintings, what I'm painting on right now, these some good paintings, because I'm putting my heart into them.

LYDEN: We watched him paint moonlights in his backyard, under a paint-splattered canvas tent. The raw paintings at first looked like they might be beach scenes, a strip of tan, a yellow sun, a blue background. You've prepared the sky, the horizon, the ocean, and the reflection.

BLACK: This what you call cleaning it up.

LYDEN: Blending everything.

BLACK: That's right. According to what you want to paint that day, you can start it off different. See, I don't do all my paintings like this. These moonlights, these here are the hard ones. See, most of the people, if they put that blue and that green and that black and stuff, it'd turn into mud.

LYDEN: As he speaks, he takes black paint and daubs on yellow. Suddenly, it's not a beach scene at all. It's the mangroves and palms at night on the water. The yellow's not the sun, it's the moon. After three hours of painting - I think Al's nearly done.

BLACK: No. He's not done. I'm putting the birds in it. In all my paintings, if you notice, there's three birds in them. There's one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Spirit.

LYDEN: And sometimes there's a fourth bird. It's Al Black, in the grace, redeemed. Jacki Lyden, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Hey, this story is part of Southword - W-O-R-D - a collaboration between NPR and Oxford American magazine. And you can find a video of Al Black painting at NPR.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.