Exhibition by 'Highwayman' Artist Robert Butler Captures Lost Florida
Florida landscape artist Robert Butler explaining his paintings at the reception held on Sept. 8 at the L. Kirk and Sarah D. McKay Archives Center at FSC.
A viewer looking over the paintings at the reception.
LAKELAND (Sept. 9, 2011) – Acclaimed Florida landscape artist Robert Butler opened an exhibition of his works at Florida Southern College on Sept. 8, giving viewers a glimpse into the wild beauty of Florida’s natural places that in some cases, no longer exist.
The exhibition, which hangs in the first-floor gallery of the L. Kirk and Sarah D. McKay Archives Center at FSC, consists of 26 paintings and prints from Butler’s 50-year career. It was organized by Dr. James M. Denham, professor of history and director of FSC’s Lawton M. Chiles Center for Florida History, and it will be on display throughout most of the 2011-2012 school year.
At a reception, Denham introduced Butler as “one of the great Floridians.”
“His love of art transformed his life,” he said.
Butler, 68, is part of a group of African-American artists known as the Highwaymen. Mostly self-taught, they earned a living by working quickly and traveling, selling their art at public venues and often out of the trunks of their cars. Butler was an 18-year-old hospital orderly in Okeechobee, Florida, with a wife and children, when he decided to work full-time as an artist, capturing the rural landscapes he saw.
Eventually his work drew wider recognition, and it has been displayed throughout the world. Addressing the audience at the reception, Butler thanked his supporters and his family, including his wife, Dorothy, and his daughter Dorene.
“We raised nine kids on my art. Especially in the 1960s, when my paintings were selling for $15 or $20, I had to sell a lot,” he joked.
His project was aided by the friendships he had with many of the state’s cattle ranchers, who gave him access to remote parts of their land.
“It became well known among the cattlemen that I was documenting the state. They were glad to see I was recording something they were proud of,” Butler said. “They shared their words of wisdom and their family stories. They showed me places I never would have been able to see.”
The exhibition includes scenes of cattle ranchers and traditional agricultural fields such as citrus, sugarcane and strawberries, in addition to landscapes and wildlife scenes. Butler works in a colorful and detailed style, portraying scenes that evoke affection and nostalgia for an unspoiled Florida.
Included in the exhibition are two celebrity collaboration works. Butler invited former Gov. Jeb Bush and recently deceased Tampa Bay Buccaneer football player Lee Roy Selmon to add their own brush strokes to paintings he was completing, and proceeds from the sales were donated to charity.
Butler suffered a stroke in 2003, and he said this is his first exhibition in about 10 years. In another blow, a fire in 2008 destroyed as many as 200 of his paintings. But some of those paintings were documented in photos, and he plans to include them in an autobiography he is working on. At the reception, Butler spoke with humility and gratitude for his life’s work.
Asked if he could name a favorite place in the state, Butler said, “Florida has so many personalities. I’m in love with them all. I enjoyed so much going to all those places. It was an adventure.”