Artist Roy McLendon Jr., Living the Legacy
By Victoria Mares:
Roy McLendon Jr. is the son of African-American artist Roy McLendon Sr., one of Florida’s 26 black artists known as “The Highwaymen,” that initiated the Indian River art movement in the 1950s. (Jan.19, 2011 blog). Even though Roy Jr. is not considered one of the original 26 “Highwaymen” he clearly remembers that from the age of 8 years, he was painting alongside his father, and with his mother’s encouragement.
“I was born an artist,” said Roy Jr. when I met him and his wife Carla McLendon, seated in front of their white tent/gallery at an outdoor art and crafts show in Florida.
“I’ve been painting for 45 years. I am not considered a “Highwayman” because I was not in the original group. But there are those in the group that don’t have 10 years on me, because I was painting with my father as a kid.”
Roy Jr. enters shows around Florida; and like his father, his work is inspired by Florida’s stunning, atmospheric landscapes that are unencumbered by concrete and high rise buildings. However, Roy Jr. has his own distinguishing style.
Director and owner of Affinity Arts, Stephen Oliver M.F.A. said of Roy Jr.’s work,
“His art has clarity and depth. He establishes a mood and he handles the light well. I like the cultural references that are subtle but they are about the people that live in the environment. There is a dignity in that, a dignity in the people and in the work of a well-trained artist. The dignity comes from persevering.”
The “Highwaymen” art is not a genre of painting readily found in the art history curriculum of academia. Critics and curators continue to analyze whether or not the style of painting should be considered “fine art.” Then of course that is the way of the art world. However, the story of the Highwaymen, including one woman, is an American art story and a story about African Americans surviving economically and spiritually through art. Roy Jr. recalls his upbringing in a house where his father painted, sold his art every day, and other black artists were in their daily life.
“Harold Newton lived across the road. And I say the road because at that time it was dirt. I recently said to my Dad, I remember someone painting on the side of their house. My dad told me, 'yes it was Harold and he painted on his mother’s house.'”
“ In high school, I would paint little paintings to make money. Then, I decided to spend more time on them. So, when my father and I went out to sell, Dad sold for $25 to $30. I said I wanted $35. Dad asked why I was asking that much. Then, I would get it. I raised the level. Customers would ask, how is mine different. I decided that when I saw a painting that I had painted, I wanted to say, ‘That is my painting.’”
There are “Highwaymen” artists that Roy Jr. remembers and still considers special. He recalls that Robert Butler took no job other than painting, and “took good care of his family, his more than 9 kids.” After the 60’s when more jobs opened to African Americans, some artists stepped out of the art world, one even becoming a fireman.
“Butler has stayed out there and continues with his art. My own father is still painting. He’s good and he is quick. Today I would say he’s one of the top two (of the original “Highwaymen"). I would say (the late) Harry Newton was number one."
Being both good and quick was a requirement of turning out enough paintings to actually make money back in the ‘50’s and 60’s when the black artists were selling their work the way they could, along public highways and door to door. There was one other alternative, African American artist turned art dealer, Al Black.
“I remember Al Black when he came to our house. Al sold for other artists including my father. He only sold for “Highwaymen. He would come to the house and say, ‘What you got?' He saw “McLendon Jr.” on one of the paintings when I was 17. He said, ‘I’ll take them too.’”
Roy Jr.’s father was a mentor and a teacher in a time when the southern world beyond their home in Gifford, Florida and around Ft. Pierce was not known as friendly to aspiring black artists. They lived in their own art world and school of art, and sold mostly to the segregated white world. There was one exception in this race defining environment.
“Back then, you had to measure yourself against (Albert Ernest) Beanie Backus, a white artist,"said Roy Jr.
"My father once took a young artist that wanted to paint to see Beanie’s work. He did the same for me. Once Bean had finished a painting, at night he would put it in a window and put a light on it. My Dad took me to see Beanie’s work. I saw some things in it I wanted to be able to do. There is only one artist that Beanie actually taught, (the late) Alfred Hair. Some people say that Al and Harold Newton taught all the (Highwaymen) artists; but they didn’t teach. You learned from the stuff they did. Bean was more a friend than an actual teacher.”
“Back then things were very segregated, you have to understand. Once my Dad was trying to finish a commission by Monday. It was on the weekend when we went to the store for the paint he needed; and it was closed. Dad said ‘Its okay. I will go down to Beanie’s’. I told him, Dad, that man is white. He ain’t gonna give you no paint. This was the 70’s . Stuff like that had not happened yet; not here.”
“We went up to Beanie’s place. He was back in the kitchen. His studio was in the front. My Dad yelled. ‘Hey Beanie, I need some paint, the store is closed. I got this commission to finish.’ Beanie yelled back, ‘take what you need; just let me know what it is and settle up later’. He never came out of the kitchen”.
“Once Beanie sent someone to my father to do a commission that Beanie couldn’t get to. For Beanie color was not a problem. He hung out in Jamaica whenever he could. He was a friend."
The former home, now gallery and museum of A.J. Backus is on the Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail that goes through Gifford, Florida. Backus’ home and gallery in the 50’s and 60’s also served as a salon for artists and writers of all colors. There, color was not an issue in a time when relaxed, racially mixed gatherings were an exception to the segregationist rule. On a weekend, there was jazz music, friends and artists. The late writer Zora Neale Hurston, a contemporary of Langston Hughes and a friend of Beanie’s might stop by. Currently, “Highwaymen” artwork is offered for sale in the Backus Museum and Gallery.
Gallery Director Carla McLendon, right and Judith Farley left
Roy McLendon Jr. has a gallery “Highwayman Art, Another Perspective,” in Vero Beach, Florida. His wife Carla is the director and also manages the website where he tells his own story very well. Their home and gallery are not far from Gifford, where Roy Jr was raised. His parents Roy Sr. and Annie B. McLendon were migrant farmworkers and had traveled north to work in New Jersey when Roy Jr. was born. They returned home to Gifford, Florida where their neighbor, Harry Newton was already painting, and Roy Jr.’s father seriously began his art career.
“What makes a “Highwayman,” said Roy Jr. “is that they painted between 1950 and 1980; they painted on Upson board or Masonite; they used crown molding for a frame, their business was in their home, they were African-American and they sold their paintings themselves.”
Roy Jr. is one among many of the sons and daughters of the old school of artists that have entered the art world, some with art school degrees and art careers. In his gallery, Roy Jr. paintings sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars, along with more affordable prints and a line of high quality, note cards. He still paints so that he can look at a piece and be proud to say, “ that’s mine.”
“I have a piece in the studio now that is $7500. I like the lighting, the water… I might not sell it. I would just as soon keep it.”
The original “Highwaymen” like Roy McLendon Sr. have been inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame, and their work has been honored by former Governor Crist. Some original "Highwaymen" continue to paint, exhibit in galleries and art shows. There are museums that own collections of the work. "Highwaymen" art commands high prices and is highly collectible. Some of the "Highwaymen," including Mary Ann Carroll have pages on Facebook.
Roy Jr. accepts commissions and sets up in fine art shows. Sometimes he stops by to paint with his father. On Sunday he is pastor of a community church and his wife is the choir director. He still stops for a majestic Florida sky, a blazing purple Jacaranda tree, or a community setting in a lush environment and rushes back to his easel with the image fresh in his mind, just as he has done for 40 years. It is as his father and other "Highwaymen" continue to do, as well as some of their progeny and perhaps strangers anywhere in the world that are inspired by the paintings and bravely artful lives created by 25 gifted men and one woman of the Indian River school of painting, "The Highwaymen" of Florida.