Brush with Fame

updated 08/11/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As a young man in the late 1950s, James Gibson would start painting before dawn and continue into the night, once churning out 100 landscapes in one day. "I'd line them up and do the paintings a layer at a time," says Gibson, 65. "First the backgrounds, then the foregrounds, then the shadows." Come sunrise, he'd load the wet pieces into his brown '57 Cadillac and drive from his Fort Pierce, Fla., home, stopping at offices and medical centers from Miami to Daytona Beach, "selling the pictures to anyone who would buy them."

Back then, they went for $20 a pop. Today they fetch up to $18,000—and his fans include Steven Spielberg and Gladys Knight. Gibson is the best-known living member of the Highwaymen—26 black artists who started selling their Florida landscapes door-to-door in the '50s and unwittingly created a style that collectors clamor for today. He has an exhibition in Florida's capitol building and Gov. Jeb Bush recently commissioned him to paint four pieces. "I'm a big fan of his work," says Bush. "He can capture Florida in just a few brush strokes, and his history makes his work even more amazing."

In the segregated '50s the original eight Highwaymen turned their backs on the packing houses and citrus groves where blacks usually worked, teaching one another to paint instead. "They used to laugh at me, but I didn't give up," says Gibson. "They said my trunk was too big on a palm tree, so I made it smaller. I was determined." Unable to afford canvas, the artists painted on salvaged construction materials. "These guys were hustlers," says collector Geoff Cook, 59, who owns about 300 Highwaymen paintings. "They were considered nuisances—until people saw the quality of their work."

Their dreamy landscapes—of moonlit rivers, beach sunsets and flaming red poinciana trees—have been dismissed as "motel art," but Gary Monroe, author of the history The Highwaymen, prefers the phrase "art for the people. It's work that doesn't require a pedigree to appreciate." The style had almost died out when art dealer Jim Fitch wrote about the group—and coined their moniker—in a trade journal in 1995. "Here was an opportunity to get into the serious art game," says Fitch, 68, "and you didn't have to be a Rockefeller." It helps now, though: In June a Highwaymen painting sold for a record $27,500.

The most prized are those by Harold Newton, who died in 1994, and Alfred Hair, who was shot dead in a bar in 1970. There was one Highwaywoman: Mary Ann Carroll, 62, a nurse's aide and single mother who sold her work to help raise her seven children. Of the group, she says, Gibson was a standout. Cook agrees: "You can be in Egypt looking at the picture through a pair of binoculars, and you know it's his."

Gibson demurs. "There were artists who were better than me," he says, "but I knew how to sell. I'd paint in the latest decorator colors: mauve in the '60s, orange and brown in the '70s, and black and white in the '80s." Even a traffic stop was an excuse to sell. When a state trooper pulled him over in his new Chevrolet Impala in the early '60s, demanding to know why a black man was driving such a nice car, Gibson sold the officer two paintings out of the trunk.

He learned the pitch early. At age 10, he would sketch pictures of cowboys and Indians and sell them to classmates for a nickel. The oldest of eight kids, Gibson majored in biology at Tennessee State University to appease his parents, a church custodian and a homemaker, but he dropped out as a junior to peddle his art full-time. A respected local white artist, A.E. "Bean" Backus, took him under his wing. Backus, who died in 1990, "said that talent was talent, no matter what color the artist," recalls Gibson. "It was probably the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me."

His talent is no longer in question. Nor is he as obsessed with output as he once was. While listening to gospel music by the creek behind his home, Gibson paints at a leisurely pace, allowing a few days per piece. When he's not creating art, he's courting fiancée Estelle Dunn, 55, a nurse he met at church in 1988. The divorced father of three plans to pass down his craft to his six grandchildren. And though his buyers may be celebs and heads of state, he's still a salesman: Recently he took a carload of work to the major-league-baseball spring training camps. "The only difference between today and yesterday," he says, "is the price."

Susan Horsburgh
Steve Helling in Fort Pierce and Don Sider in West Palm Beach

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