MOUNT DORA – In the 1950s and 1960s, an era of racial segregation in the South, a group of African American artists who were not well known and largely self-taught found it impossible to interest galleries in displaying and selling their artwork.
“It was very difficult for a black person in the 1950s and 1960s to survive and succeed,” said Margie Salyer of Mount Dora.
So much has changed in the past four decades. When Saylor, who runs a bed & breakfast in Mount Dora, decided to sponsor an art exhibit to attract more visitors to the downtown, she knew exactly who to profile: the Florida Highwaymen, that group of 26 landscape artists who sold their art directly to the public rather than through galleries and art agents.
Over the Martin Luther King Holiday weekend, Saylor’s business, the Heron Cay Bed & Breakfast Inn, presented the Florida Highwaymen Art Show Sale and Benefit at the Donnelly Park Building in downtown Mount Dora, featuring not only the works of the Highwaymen – paintings that were rediscovered in the mid-1990s by art historian Jim Fitch, and today are recognized as an important part of American folk history – but also the works of 10 original artists.
Saylor said she chose the Highwaymen because they capture an important part of Florida’s rich history in their work, and also because these landscape artists have been called “The Last Great American Art Movement of the 20th century” who were able to create a body of work containing more than 200,000 paintings that cut across the many racial and cultural barriers of the era they painted in.
“We have a large collection of their art at our bed and breakfast in Mount Dora, and it hangs throughout our house,” Saylor said.
Recognizing the popular appeal that the Highwaymens’ work continues to hold today, as well as Mount Dora’s reputation for art shows, antique shops and other cultural events, Saylor said she decided nearly a decade ago to host a special exhibit in downtown to bring in more visitors.
“I’ve wanted to create something that would bring people to Mount Dora,” she said, as she worked on the last few details of the exhibit on Saturday morning, moments before opening it to the general public.
“This is our eighth year, and it gets bigger and better every year,” she said.
She decided to host the show in mid-January, Saylor said, because this has traditionally been a slow time of year for specials events, since the holidays just ended and folks are back to work or school.
“We have slow times, like the middle of August and right after the holidays,” she said. “We decided that we needed to provide the snowbirds with something to do.”
The paintings by the Highwaymen, she said, capture scenes of beauty around Florida, the rich landscape of the Sunshine State.
“They’re very colorful,” she said. “It’s very Florida. And the manner in which they started selling is no unique.”
Since their work was rediscovered in 1995, the Highwaymen have become celebrated for their idyllic landscapes of natural Florida settings, and the 26 Florida Highwaymen were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.
“They’ve been imitated quite a bit since then,” Saylor said, adding that the exhibit also has the support of the families members of the original Highwaymen.
“The shows are non-profit, and the artists give us a commission on the sales,” she said. “The proceeds from our previous shows have been donated to our train station, which needs restoration.”
The Old Mount Dora A. C. L. Railroad Station is a historic Atlantic Coast Line Railroad depot at 341 N. Alexander St., originally built by ACL in 1915. Passenger service ended in 1950, and freight service on the line ended in 1973. Today it remains a historic and cultural item for Mount Dora. On March 5, 1992, the station was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Maintaining the town’s history is important, Saylor said, noting that one of Mount Dora’s oldest and most popular spots, the Lakeside Inn, reflects that history.
“The Lakeside Inn was built in the 1880s,” she said.
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