When the first vibrant sunsets and moonlit beaches of Florida Highwaymen paintings blazed to life more than 50 years ago, Mary Ann Carroll and Doretha Hair Truesdell were there.
The Highwaymen painters became known for quickly creating vivid scenes of wild Florida. The works — often still wet — were sold from the trunks of the artists' cars along U.S. Highway 1 for as little as $10 in the late 1950s and '60s.
Today, some original oils sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
The two women have added their own brush strokes to one of the most fantastic stories in American art, a colorful tale of survival and prosperity forged during the dark days of segregation in the Deep South.
While Carroll is renowned as the only woman among the African-American painters from Fort Pierce, Truesdell, the widow of the movement's founder, Alfred Hair, remains a footnote.
On Friday and Saturday, Carroll and Truesdell join seven Highwaymen painters for a show at the historic Sample-McDougald House in Pompano Beach, sponsored by the home's preservation society and the city's Historical Society.
Stories of survival
"I had two strikes against me when I started painting," Carroll, 73, says from her Fort Pierce home. "Being black and being a woman. This was all about survival."
Carroll, who started painting when she was 17, was mentored by the late Harold Newton. He and Hair are the most highly regarded among the Highwaymen artists, says Howard Brassner, a Highwayman expert who owns Art Link International, a gallery in Lake Worth. "Their works can sell for as much as $40,000."
The loose-knit art movement expanded around Fort Pierce when others discovered that brushes and palette knives would help them escape a life of hard labor picking tomatoes and oranges.
"I was a painter and a salesman and a mother and a daddy. I painted houses, did yards, I did whatever I had to do to keep food on the table for my seven kids," Carroll says.
Back then, Carroll sold 12-by-24 inch paintings for $12.50 and 18-by-24s for $25.
"Thank you to everyone who bought a painting from me," she says. "You helped me feed my kids and I couldn't have done it without you."
Carroll peddled her paintings out of the trunk of her Buick Electra. "I didn't sell my paintings on the side of the road because it wasn't ladylike," she says. "I took mine into offices and businesses and schools, the courthouse and churches up and down the Florida coast."
In 2004, Carroll was one of 26 members of the original Highwaymen inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Nine have died.
"I was highly surprised to be put in there," Carroll says. "We just were doing this to make a dollar. But then people started liking our work and the recognition came."
Carroll is the subject of an upcoming book by Gary Monroe, the Daytona State College professor who nominated the painters to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame after publishing “The Highwaymen” in 2001.
Truesdell, who lives in the house where Hair started painting, feels left out.
"I'm thrilled for Ms. Carroll, but I wish I were in there, too," Truesdell, 71, says of the Hall of Fame. "They done left me out. I'm the forgotten Highwayman. That's a pain in my heart.
"Maybe that's a wrong that will one day be righted. I cannot know. I just keep on painting."