Born January 1, 1938 in Fort Pierce, James Gibson is a fourth generation Floridian. He was interested in art from the time he was very young. As a boy of 10, he sold drawings of cowboys and stagecoaches at school for five or ten cents to buy ice cream.
In the 1950s, a teacher at Fort Pierce’s all-black high school asked A.E. “Bean” Backus, today regarded as one of Florida’s finest landscape painters, to mentor one of her students. The student was Alfred Hair, and Backus recognized the young man’s talent and traded him odd jobs in exchange for formal art lessons. Alfred invited his friend James Gibson to tag along on the lessons. When Gibson was 18, Backus paid him to make picture frames. Gibson soon acquired painting skills and techniques from Backus and his other students. “Mr. Backus looked at some of my sketches and told me I could put them in oil,” recalls Mr. Gibson. “As he was explaining to other students, I would listen.” Gibson adds that Backus allowed him and other students to take paintings home to study and mimic. “You can’t copy Mr. Backus,” he says. “But what you want to do is get the sky right, get the colors and perspective right.” Backus took Gibson under his wing and said “talent was talent, no matter what color the artist,” recalls Mr. Gibson. “It was probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
James Gibson went off to Tennessee State University to study biology, but after three years his money ran out, so he returned home to Fort Piece. With more prompting from his friend, Alfred Hair, James returned to his first passion – art – to become a working artist. Hair said to Gibson, “James, if I did it, you can do it.” “Alfred was telling me this so he had some competition. That’s what he thrived on. We were young and competitive, painting was exhilarating. We would get together and paint for days, inspiring, motivating, and laughing with each other. Then, in different directions from Fort Pierce, we would take off on the highway selling our paintings from the trunk of our cars. From the beginning, some people collected our art.” They would try to out do each other constantly. “When Alfred made $125, I’d have to make $150. Then, he’d have to make $200. When I painted half a day, he painted all day. Then, I painted all night.” Hair offered enough pointers so Gibson could paint something that would sell, but Hair didn’t share all he had learned from Backus. “The reason he didn’t teach me everything was so he could stay a step ahead of me.”
“Although Alfred had formal training from Backus, he wanted to be a millionaire and concentrated on painting fast to be able to sell more paintings and make more money. Backus never approved of Hair’s fast paced painting, but Hair didn’t pay that any mind, he had his sites set.” James Gibson, Alfred Hair and their friend and artist Harold Newtown often gathered to paint and hone their skills, taking tips from one another and developing their own styles and marketing methods. “The three of us each had a reason to paint together. Alfred wanted to paint with Harold Newton because Newton could paint better. Harold wanted to paint with Alfred because Alfred could paint faster. I painted with Harold and Alfred to learn from them. They painted with me because I was the best salesman.”
In an article in the 1990s, Jim Fitch, a Sebring gallery owner, coined the “Highwaymen” moniker, in one of those wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-moments to portray the way these young, talented black artists sold their art. Gibson recalls, “If you think about it, that was what we were doing – loading up paintings and going down the highway.”
The original Highwaymen artists included (in alphabetical order): Mary Ann Carroll, Willie Daniels, James Gibson, Alfred Hair, Roy McLendon, Harold Newton, Sam Newton, and Livingston Roberts.
In the segregated 1950s, the original Highwaymen artists chose a different path than most blacks who worked in packing houses and citrus groves, by teaching one another to paint instead. “They used to laugh at me, but I didn’t give up, says Gibson. “They said the trunk was too big on my palm tree, so I made it smaller. I was determined.”
A private collector Geoff Cook, who owns at least 300 Highwaymen paintings, says of Gibson’s work, “You can be in Egypt looking at a picture through a pair of binoculars, and you know it’s his.” In speaking about his painting style, Mr. Gibson states, “I like to paint real thick to give the paintings a kind of three dimensional look. Mr. Backus would sometimes do an entire painting with just a palette knife. I like to use one, too, but I use brushes as well.” Mr. Gibson uses a palette knife in one way that Backus didn’t, to scratch his name into the corner of each painting rather than paint a signature. “I got that from Harold Newton,” Gibson said, “and it kind of became a sign of the Highwaymen.”
Mr. Gibson saves money on materials by painting on Upson board, a building material similar to Masonite, because it is cheaper than canvas and readily available. So the Highwaymen set out, painting frantically, then loading their cars to sell their paintings, since it was unheard of in the segregated south for unknown, self-taught African Americans to exhibit their artwork in galleries. They traveled up and down the east coast from Fort Pierce to Palm Beach, Miami and even to Orlando on occasion, stopping at banks, restaurants, and lawyer’s and doctor’s offices to sell their work or set up on the highway to sell their paintings to tourists.
On a given day, Mr. Gibson would load up his car with a dozen paintings, many of them “sofa-sized” for a living room display, and travel to professional offices from Miami to Daytona Beach. He’d stick his head in the door and ask if anyone was interested in seeing his art. “A 'no' meant I’d get out quick, but a 'yes' meant a quick setup and sales pitch.” Mr. Gibson figured “I’d have to go to 100 places to sell 10 paintings, but that sure beat the alternative of picking fruit.”
In later years, Gibson became a savvy salesman. He’d go to furniture and carpet stores to find the latest decorator colors and then paint landscapes to match. He remembers painting mauve when it came into fashion, but says scenes with blues, greens and whites were his best sellers. He also priced his artwork to move, offering some small canvases for as little as $15. “I didn’t want to miss any sales.”
One of Mr. Gibson’s favorite stories is about being pulled over in his new Chevy Impala in the early 1960s. When the trooper questioned why a black man was driving such a nice car, Gibson says, “I got out and said my name is James Gibson. Here is my driver license and registration. I’m an artist. I have some of my paintings in my trunk.” They stood at the trunk. He said, “Wow, you painted this?” Lucky for Mr. Gibson he had a number of paintings in blue and white, the trooper’s favorite colors. Though he usually sold a single work for $35, he sold the officer two for $45. “I gave him a break.” A mile and half down the road, the trooper pulled up on Gibson’s right side. The trooper had spoken to a Palm Beach captain, who knew of Gibson’s art and needed art for the walls of his new police station. “The captain asked me when I could come down. I said, I’ll come right now.” Gibson sold the entire contents of his trunk in 15 minutes to off-duty police officers, FBI agents and troopers.
Things changed for the group in 1969, when Alfred Hair, then 32, a bystander in a barroom brawl was shot and killed. With the loss of their leader, the artists ended their group sessions. Several, including Newton, continued working in the Backus tradition, while others pursued different careers. James Gibson is the only one to stay with his painting and earn a living entirely from his art.
Mr. Gibson makes a point of painting every day, preferably in the morning. "I have a more relaxed mind early in the morning,” he said. “My thoughts are clearer and I can focus on what I am doing better. Even when I’m in other cities to sell my paintings, I take my canvases and paints along. If I’m going to be somewhere, like Tallahassee for instance, for two or three days; I get my business over with, find a spot, and start painting.”
“The way the light comes through the trees is what motivates me, I can remember the color and then put everything else around it. It’s that color of light that makes a painting turn out real nice."
“It’s about giving people a piece of Florida to take home. You can’t take the weather home and you can’t take the beach with you. But you can take my artwork and be reminded of all that.”
Even after completing over 10,000 works of art and being honored continually for his work, Mr. Gibson is modest and awe struck at the attention he and his comrades receive. “I’m in the history books they’re using in Florida,” he says with disbelief. “I’m on page seven!”
“Now I can think about what Mr. Backus told me,” Gibson says. “I don’t have to worry about paying bills. I really love art now. I found out the better your paintings are, the more money you make. I’ll never retire because this is what I enjoy. I want to see how far I can go with this, I feel like I’m just getting started.”
More Than an Artist
As you can imagine, James Gibson leads a pretty interesting life - meeting all kinds of people in his travels. He has formed many lasting relationships along the way and as each adventure leads to another, so does each opportunity for Mr. Gibson to make a difference. James Gibson is more than an artist - he is a servant and a philanthropist. Find out more about Mr. Gibson by visiting his Contributions and Achievements pages.