Library Friends play host to Highwayman

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By The Staff

The Friends of the Williston Public Library provided an enthusiastic audience as artist Sylvester M. Wells presented the program at the library on Thursday, Sept. 18.

Sylvester, one of the original "Highwaymen" spoke about his career and proceeded to paint a canvas which was commissioned by the library. The painting is being raffled as a fundraiser.

Sylvester belonged to what was a loosely organized group of 26 African-American artists from the Fort Pierce area. They started painting in the 1950s and 60s and created brightly colored scenes of palm trees, sunsets, ocean waves, red Poinciana trees and other Florida landscapes. Not accepted into the mainstream of American art, they sold paintings for $10 to $25 at roadside stands, sidewalks and from the trunks of their car. One internet history estimates some 200,000 paintings were sold from the mid-50s through the 1980s.

The artists were "discovered" in the 1990s. In 1995, a writer named Jim Fitch coined the name "The Highwaymen" because of their travels up and down I-95 and A1A. In 2004, all 26 original Florida Highwaymen made up of 25 men and one woman were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Today, paintings by these artists have become sought after and prices may reach into the thousands.

Sylvester is a preacher as well as an artist He told us that he was called to preach in the 1960s in a dream. She says his art talent is God given. "I have a gift by the grace of God," he says. "I'm attempting to use it to glorify him."

Sylvester is originally from Jacksonville. He now lives in Tennessee. He recalls that he discovered painting at about the age of 6. "I've been doing it ever since," he says.

He painted portraits while he served in the Army from 1957 to 1960.

When he returned from the military he took up sign painting as a way to make a living. As he put it, "people just don't jump on art."

He traced his career as a landscape artist back to 1965 when he began meeting other members of the original group. Mostly self-taught, Wells said he learned by watching and sharing ideas. After his sessions with other artists, he recalls that he would go home and experiment and learn through trial and error. He soon began selling paintings that he said "kept beans on the table."

"I learned by practice and using the talent God has given me," he said. "God's intervention permitted me to demonstrate his handiwork."

A number of his original paintings were on display during the library program and prints of his more religious subjects were shown. Still interested in portraiture, his wife, Sister Clezella, showed us a print of a portrait of M.L. King. Other prints depicted his interpretation of biblical messages. One piece he was particularly proud of was a panorama of an 1885 group baptism in Huntsville, Alabama, against the backdrop of historic buildings. Copies of that print were sold during the program.

Wells paints in oils and acrylics. When asked, he said one of his favorite artists is Norman Rockwell. "I learned about composition from him."

The completed painting will be raffled at the Williston Woman's Club Art Exhibition next May. Raffle tickets are $1 and available through the Friends of the Library.