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Meet Festival of the Arts Guest Artist A.J. Brown

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By Zandra Wolfgram


A beautiful example of art transcending time is found in the story of Florida Highwaymen. This year the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation Festival of the Arts welcomes guest artist A.J. Brown, a second generation Florida Highwayman from Fort Pierce, Florida.


The original Highwaymen were 26 self-taught African-American painters, who in the 1950s realized they couldn’t sell their work in white-owned galleries, so they took to the road selling their scenes of beaches, sea and wildlife for $25 from their car trunks on area roadways. Today, many of the remaining Highwaymen are still on the road selling their works, but thankfully the world is more welcoming and their art is highly valued, selling for thousands of dollars.


Born in Virginia and raised by a single mother and Seminole Indian grandmother in southern Florida, Brown came from a family of migrant fruit and vegetable pickers from Tallahassee. Life was hard. These nomadic working families lived in camps and traveled from highway to highway. During Brown’s elementary school years, she, like many others, attended more than 10 different schools and had 15 different home addresses. “We had no permanent home. We were Highwaymen in every sense of the word,” says Brown.


In 1969, Brown was in the fourth grade at Means Court Elementary School. When school recessed she worked summer jobs, including being a stucco helper to her Uncle Alfred and picking oranges in the fields. “We all were searching for a way out,” she says. “We were all caught in the same economic inequality.”


In the 1960s the family set roots in the Lincoln Park area of Fort Pierce, Florida. The Civil Rights Movement was growing in Miami, as it was throughout the country. Brown and her family were once again be on the move. “I was among the first students to end segregation. In 1970, early before daybreak, I woke to take three buses out of my neighborhood and across town to desegregate—one white school in another town.”


Brown’s life, like many of the Florida Highwaymen, is clearly illustrated in her work. Images of vividly colored Red Royal Poinciana and Purple Jacaranda trees along the southern bayous of Florida are trademarks.


The history of Highwaymen is a part of our collective American history. And their rightful place in the world of art was confirmed recently when President Barack Obama and the First Lady added two of Brown’s paintings to their personal collection. And the tradition transcends time as art history is passed down to the next generation, including Brown’s own granddaughter, Jalisa.


“The festival has always been a celebration of art,” says MKAF Artist Market Chair Deb Nissley. “We are honored A.J. Brown was able to join us to share her legacy story through her lovely artwork. Growing through the discovery of art is what we strive to do, and we’re sure festivalgoers will find this component both inspirational and educational.”

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