His new book features color plates of Mary Ann Carroll’s most famous landscape paintings and tells the never-before-told story of her hard-fought journey to provide for her family and make a name for herself in a man’s world.
Carroll was 16 when she joined the Highwaymen, a group of 26 African-American artists who painted their way out of the despair awaiting them in citrus groves and packing houses of 1950s Florida. The artists sold their paintings out of their car trunks for $35 at most. Now, collectors pay thousands of dollars to own these vibrant landscapes.
“From the late 1950s into the early ‘80s these colorful landscapes were ubiquitous decorations in Florida homes, offices, restaurants, and motel rooms. They shaped the state’s popular image as much as oranges and alligators,” said the New York Times of Monroe’s first Highwaymen book, The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters.
Carroll sold her first painting at 18—remarkable for any artist and unheard of for a black woman in the South. Like her Highwaymen brethren, she traveled across Florida, selling her art at hotels, offices and restaurants where she was not allowed to drink, eat or even sit. If the Highwaymen faced discrimination at every door they knocked on, then the challenges—and dangers—were magnified for Carroll.
Mary Ann Carroll is Monroe’s fourth book on the Highwaymen. As the leading expert on the Highwaymen, Monroe has been featured on NPR for his significant body of work on these African American painters. Recently, Ft. Myers Magazine interviewed Monroe in advances of today’s publication of Mary Ann Carroll. Below we share our interview with the Highwaymen expert, revealing some behind-the-scenes information about the book and his work.
Tell us about your first introduction to the artwork of the Highwaymen.
In 1997 I was writing a book about self-taught and generally idiosyncratic artists in Florida and was going to include the Highwaymen in it. But Meredith Morris-Babb said that there was “buzz” about the little known Highwaymen and suggested I write a book just about them. I did so a bit reluctantly, thinking I’d wind up driving from Key West to Pensacola and back buying the books off reminder racks at $1.99 each. Was I ever wrong.
What are a few of the key challenges that Mary Ann Carroll would have faced that the other Highwaymen did not?
Being a woman and a single mother of seven children, and she had her own demons to battle.
Are there any modern-day artists who you consider to be similar to the Highwaymen?
I asked myself that a lot of times as I researched, but came up relatively empty-handed. Maybe the Gee’s Bend quilters, but that’s not quite the same. There are schools of art, but again, no cigar. The Highwaymen seem to be a unique phenomenon, which was defined, perhaps, by the Civil Rights Movement and the space race, while being distinguished by their gestural painterly style and uninhibited use of color as applied to the Florida landscape.
What are you working on next?
I’m rereading a manuscript I wrote about the obscure but ever-important Florida photographer E.G. Barnhill.
What do you hope readers will enjoy the most about your book?
Of course the appreciation of Mary Ann’s art, as well as the Highwaymen’s aesthetic, is primary. But her backstory, both personal and environmental—the Civil Rights Movement and its slow-to-change aftereffects of integration—add remarkably to appreciating the accomplishments of the Highwaymen and, particularly, Mary Ann. She’s a survivor.