Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 22, 2017
Gary Monroe Mary Ann Carroll: First Lady of the Highwaymen Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014. 192 pp.; Many color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780813049694)

Mary Ann Carroll: First Lady of the Highwaymen is the fourth Highwaymen book by Gary Monroe, Daytona State College professor of fine arts and photography. Virginia Lynn Moylan’s unexpectedly moving foreword outlines the context of Monroe’s study: the omission of black visual artists and black female artists from discussions of “cultural expression” in the United States. In 1995, Jim Fitch, then-director of the Museum of Florida Art and Culture, wrote “‘The Highwaymen’ is a name I’ve given to a group of black artists working on the East coast of Florida from approximately 1955 to the present. So called because their marketing and sales strategy consisted of traveling the highways and byways of Central Florida peddling their paintings out of the back of their cars” (Jim Fitch, “The Highwaymen,” Antiques and Art Around Florida” [Winter/Spring 1995]: With Mary Ann Carroll: First Lady of the Highwaymen, Monroe brings attention to the only woman in this group.

In a follow-up article entitled “The Highwaymen—Revisited,” Fitch identified two categories of Highwaymen paintings, “those reflecting the strong influence of the groups’ [sic] mentor, A. E. ‘Bean’ Backus, and . . . others that are more an individual interpretation” (Jim Fitch, “The Highwaymen—Revisited,” Antiques and Art Around Florida” [Winter/Spring 1997]: Associating the second category with folk art, which Fitch found “free of artifice and undue influence from the academic art community . . . less perfect realistically but more powerful emotionally,” he identified elements of both categories in all Highwaymen art (Fitch, “The Highwaymen—Revisited”).

Monroe builds Carroll’s story around her Highwaymen associations as well as quotations sprinkled generously throughout the text. In the mid-1950s, Highwaymen such as Harold Newton and Alfred Hair began careers as landscapists. Hair studied with Backus. “Using simple math, Hair decided that he must produce ten paintings in the time that it took Backus to complete one. He would sell them before the oils had time to dry, for twenty-five dollars apiece, to earn the same amount of money” (2). Newton and Hair attracted aspiring painters, including Carroll, largely from the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Fort Pierce (3). Eventually twenty-six made up the Highwaymen (3–4). “All but Alfred Hair were self-taught; they were ‘learning from one another’s strokes,’ says Mary Ann” (4). Describing an aspect of the works’ subject matter, Monroe notes that “Florida’s iconic palm trees and shimmering waters are staples in these paintings, reinforcing the romantic images of Florida that many people already held dear” (2). He dispels the myth that Highwaymen painted via an assembly line. Instead, each had a personal style, and “Mary Ann’s use of color set her apart from the rest of the group” (4). She mused, “I paint the way I feel. Sometimes [the colors are] too bold. I leave them or tone them down” (15). Monroe also describes some of the clientele: “Furniture store owners would buy paintings to warm up their showroom displays. In addition to hanging them on their offices’ walls to serve as incentives to closing sales, realtors would give paintings as housewarming gifts to new homeowners. The artists became . . . goodwill ambassadors between black and white communities” (27).

In his acknowledgements Monroe explains that Carroll and John Byram, University Press of Florida editor-in-chief, asked him to write this book. In the preface he laments how challenging this was. “Mary Ann Carroll is a difficult interview. . . . She’s a seasoned salesperson, and she is cautious among white people” (xi). Invaluable as his first contact, “Mary Ann recognized my intentions and introduced me to other Highwaymen, some of whom were either hard to locate or not interested in meeting me” (xi). Moreover, “It took months to meet the artists and break the ice, and I couldn’t have done it without Mary Ann. We became friends” (xi). Yet, Carroll had to ask Monroe to write a book about her, and he refers to her throughout as Mary Ann. Carroll is of a generation of southern blacks who were routinely called by their first names, or “auntie” or “uncle,” a sign of disrespect by whites.

Lamentably, Monroe does not probe beneath the surface of Carroll’s works in striving to know her. Instead, he declares, “Modernists, such as Mary Ann, are naturally transparent in their creations. Maybe . . . her ego dissolved into her paintings. After all, through an explication of her paintings we might get a glimpse into who Mary Ann really is. But there is no turmoil in her artwork, no resentment toward society, no bitterness toward anyone. Nothing scratches at the surface of Highwaymen paintings” (xii).

Monroe visited Carroll’s Fort Pierce church. “In 1995 Mary Ann Carroll was ordained by the Genesis Ministries in Orlando” (9). She states: “‘Something about God intrigued me. As a child I watched clouds shifting and drifting, and the sun making shadows dance. I liked to hear the wind blowing through the trees’” (9). This would have been an apt opportunity to analyze the spiritual in Carroll’s art. Highwaymen painted paradise, unspoiled, sacred land, reasons Monroe (7). Carroll’s words link God with nature, and Monroe might have brought attention to the display of God in nature in specific Carroll paintings, but he does not. “Her artwork expresses her love of God. To know God through the natural world was a popular and reassuring interpretation of the Highwaymen’s art, as it had been for the tradition of American landscape painting a hundred years before” (10).

Monroe makes little attempt to distinguish early works from late ones, although Fitch does in his articles: “Paintings on Upson board, because it has not been manufactured for quite some time, are a reliable indicator of early work by any of the Highwaymen” (Fitch, “The Highwaymen—Revisited”). In a previous book on the Highwaymen, Monroe notes that the Highwaymen switched to Masonite in the 1980s because Upson board was scarce and “discontinued in 1991” (Gary Monroe, The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001, 147). In describing some of Carroll’s initial work, Monroe says: “An early crude painting of Mary Ann’s was discovered in 1997 in a shop in Titusville with the signature M. A. S. Carroll—the S being for Sneed, her maiden name” (16). He illustrates two paintings with this signature but does not indicate which is the “crude” one. Monroe goes on to declare that “Mary Ann does not recall how long she signed with the S before dropping it, only that she included the S intermittently until it vanished” (16). Stylistically, Monroe argues, “Early Highwaymen paintings were loose and gestural, palette knife passes so exuberant that paint was pulled off the board. The resulting pieces were raw, yet formally resolved, demanding in their own spirited and carefree way, and certainly unmatched by other artists” (16). A section devoted exclusively to Carroll’s art, her technique, style, and content would be useful here, but Monroe drops only fragments of this discussion throughout his text, leaving it up to the reader to string the pieces together.

Monroe intertwines Carroll’s biography with a history of her Fort Pierce neighborhood and school, noting that she dropped “out of Lincoln Park Academy at the end of the ninth grade” (12). “She began painting in earnest in 1957, the year before giving birth to the first of her seven children” (14). She married in late 1962 or early 1963, but Monroe does not verify the date. He also mentions that “Mary Ann was the breadwinner during her marriage” (14).

Monroe fast-forwards to the twenty-first century by recounting how the Highwaymen were unaware they were to be commemorated until projects were underway. “The creation of public art commemorating the Highwaymen—an obelisk in November 2009 and a mural in August 2011, along Avenue D—are signs of positive change there. But recognition came too little and too late to appease some of the artists, Mary Ann Carroll foremost among them” (33). It turns out that the obelisk monument is the work of a New York native, Miami-based white, female artist. Nevertheless, “Another non-Highwayman was commissioned to create a mosaic mural of a Highwaymen painting at a new bus station on Avenue D” (34). Eventually, “the Highwaymen were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame by the State of Florida” in 2004, and Carroll “was honored by Michelle Obama at the First Lady’s Luncheon at the Congressional Club in Washington, D. C.” in 2011 (38–39).

The text of Mary Ann Carroll: First Lady of the Highwaymen is followed by beautiful full-page illustrations. Yet there are no catalogue entries, no titles, media, dimensions, or collections given. Neither are there notes or a bibliography. While readers will be grateful to Monroe for bringing attention to Carroll, they will also be frustrated that he documents so little. When and where did he interview her? When did he attend her church? How many of her paintings has he seen? There is only so much that can be ascertained from reproductions, no matter how high-quality the images. Monroe lists private collectors and the South Florida State College Museum of Florida Art and Culture as owners of the illustrated paintings, but he does not say which are housed in each (xv). In his earlier The Highwaymen, Monroe included notes. The third note lists dates and locations of personal interviews with various Highwaymen, including Carroll in Fort Pierce on October 4, 1998. Otherwise, Monroe dismisses in the third note of The Highwaymen most of the existing literature as “full of misinformation,” which makes his interviews all the more valuable (147). Mary Ann Carroll: First Lady of the Highwaymen requires the documentation Monroe includes in the notes of The Highwaymen to convince the reader of its full merit as a scholarly study.

Betty J. Crouther
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Mississippi