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Museum of History exhibits spotlight soldiers and painters

Bill DeYoung



"American Soldier: Conflicts, Shipwrecks, and The Homefront" at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Photo provided.

A pair of exhibits opening Friday at the St. Petersburg Museum of History explore the American experience from decidedly different angles. American Soldier: Conflicts, Shipwrecks, and The Homefront combines several sub-exhibits on American military history, while A Private Collection spotlights a collection of 26 original paintings by South Florida’s original Highwaymen.

From the Museum of History’s collection, American Soldier includes six cases filled with various military weaponry and artifacts, dating back to the American Civil War; 36 images from the award-winning American Soldier – A Photographic Tribute to Soldiers and Marines from the Civil War to Iraq photography exhibit, curated and produced by Cyma Rubin.

“You look at the faces and there’s an interesting sameness — same faces, different uniforms,” Rubin, a TV and film producer, told Michigan Live. “The more that changes, the more of the same thing.”

St. Petersburg’s contribution to the cause during World War II – the city was a major training and convalescent center – is explored in a The Homefront, a photographic exhibit culled from the Museum of History’s vast archive.

On loan from Tallahassee’s Museum of Florida History are numerous artifacts from the Maple Leaf, a Civil War Union naval ship sunk by Rebel forces as it sailed the St. John’s River near Jacksonville in 1864. There’s also an example of the “torpedo” that sank it.

An example of Florida Highwaymen art by Mary Ann Carroll (1940-2019).

In and around Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie, Florida, a small group of African Americans learned to paint luminous Florida landscapes, in oils, from (white) art instructor A.E. “Bean” Backus in the 1950s, ‘60s and into the ‘70s. This gave them a way to make a living; they sold their work (many on board, because the artists couldn’t afford canvases) from their cars along the area’s myriad, interconnected highways.

Many years later, when these works were “discovered” by art historians, the loose-knit group was dubbed The Highwaymen. Today, the original paintings are highly prized by collectors.

In 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened with 18 Highwaymen paintings in its collection.

The St. Petersburg Museum of History’s exhibit includes 26 original Highwaymen paintings, on loan from a private collector.

The featured artists – all founding Highwaymen – are Harold Newton, James Gibson, Mary Ann Caroll (the only woman in the original group of 26), Lemuel Newton, Hezekiah Baker, Rodney Demps, Johnny Daniels, Livingston Roberts, Charles Wheeler, John Maynor and Sam Newton.

St. Petersburg Museum of History website.










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