American history, coming from where I'm from, educational, Florida History

The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams

al black highwaymen book

The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams, by Gary Munroe. Published in 2009. Hardcover, 160 pages.

Despite being officially 160 pages, The Highwaymen Murals is only 27 pages of text, all the author needs to detail the turbulent life of unlikely artist Al Black. The remaining 133 pages are color photos of the murals Black painted throughout the two prisons where he served time in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s for drug possession and fraud. The particulars of this book must necessarily be preceded with a short introduction to the Florida Highwaymen. Gary Munroe’s book opens with this paragraph:

In 1960, in Ft. Pierce, Florida, a group of young African-American men virtually stumbled into lucrative careers as landscape painters. These men had no schooling, nor were they part of any art movement. At night, because they had no studios, they painted feverishly in their own backyards, often with barbecues flaming and beers flowing. By day they would peddle these scenic paintings up and down the Atlantic coast. Actually, they did not care that much about art, and they cared even less about the recognition that they might receive as artists. What did motivate them was basic to their very survival- financial gain.

That’s the short version of the story of the artists known as the Florida Highwaymen (the group did include one woman, however).  This book is the third of several books that author Gary Munroe has written about the artists. His first book, published in 2001, catapulted these men, their story, and their contribution to the arts into the spotlight when the New York Times devoted a lengthy piece to them in its Lively Arts section:

Wind-bent palm trees, sand, surf, billowing clouds and vivid sunsets were the essentials of Florida landscape painting that emerged following World War II. Occasionally moss-draped cypress trees in the still water of a marsh presented a more contemplative view, while a royal poinciana in full, flaming red bloom or a storm-tossed shore provided dramatic relief.

From the late 1950’s into the early 80’s these colorful landscapes were ubiquitous decorations in Florida homes, offices, restaurants and motel rooms. They shaped the state’s popular image as much as oranges and alligators.

Little known, however, is that such paintings were largely the creations of a loose-knit group of self-taught, African-American artists from what was called Blacktown in the little east coast city of Fort Pierce, about 55 miles north of Miami, said Gary Monroe, professor of visual arts at Daytona Beach Community College. (The writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston died in poverty in Fort Pierce in 1960.)

Munroe’s first books highlighted the classical, more artistically pure work of Alfred Hair and Harold Newton, the first highwaymen. During his research and travels he discovered the story and prison murals of Al Black, and couldn’t rest until he had written this book which tells Black’s story. He recounts his rise, fall and redemptive work painting murals on prison walls which injected a dose of hope into the life of his fellow inmates and brightness into the shifts of the correctional employees who spent their days and nights supervising their charges.

Al Black’s Concrete Dreams explains how Black, who initially didn’t paint at all, went from  the smooth talking, silver-tongued salesman for the Florida Highwaymen, to becoming a celebrated artist in his own right.

Because the Florida Highwaymen painted as much for volume as aesthetic value, Black often stacked his cars full of paintings that were not completely dry. He is actually quoted as saying he “never sold a painting that wasn’t wet”. When he arrived at office complexes, banks, hotels, medical facilities and other places to sell the paintings, he’d often find that the paintings had been smudged or damaged in transit. As a result, he learned to carry art supplies with him to fix the paintings while he was on the road.

He was never much interested in painting because he was making a handsome living selling the paintings of the Highwaymen. Over time however, he became quite skilled. He did paint on occasion, and on occasion passed off unsigned works by other artists as his own work.

Over time his fast-talking, risk-taking, high-life way of living  cost him everything, including his freedom. During the resurrected interest in the Highwaymen’s art, the warden of the Central Florida prison where he was incarcerated recognized his name, and that was the beginning of Black’s return to art and the celebrated prison murals which adorn the walls of two Florida state prisons.  Most are not available for public viewing except in this book, but a couple were published in Florida newspapers. This is one example (photo credit):

al black mural

Black’s ascendancy, free fall from grace, and re-emergence from the ashes is a fascinating tale. What I enjoyed more than the short biography however, was the art, so I am glad that this book was composed chiefly of Al Black’s artwork.

As for how the Highwaymen art lost its grip on the imagination of Floridians old and new, the answer is actually pretty simple. As the Florida landscape changed, bulldozed and covered with more concrete and overrun with more cars, the idyllic natural beauty that drew the likes Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone to the Sunshine State gave way to Mickey Mouse and mass marketed tourism efforts. The magic captured by the Highwaymen paintings was not within the imaginative reach of new generations of Florida residents and visitors. Their time had come and gone.

four out of five stars.

 

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American history, coming from where I'm from, educational, Florida History, homeschool

The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark

joseph E Clark book

The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark: From Slavery to Town Father, by Olga Fenton Mitchell and Gloria Fenton Magbie. Published in 2003, 112 pages.

This is the biography of the man who founded the oldest incorporated black municipality in the United States of America. It is definitely a niche book and topic, one that interests me on a purely personal level. I almost declined to review it because I know there is no universal appeal attached to it. However, it matters to me, so I decided it was worth reviewing.

Joseph Clark was born into slavery in the year 1859. He was the son of slaves, but his father William was a man of keen sense and a deep desire to see his children be as successful as life would allow. So after the Civil War ended and his family was freed, he moved them to East Tennessee (a Union friendly southern area) and began working in earnest to see to it that his children were educated. Always a man of hard work and frugality, the authors of the book recount that 1870 census records list William Clark as a drayman with a net worth of $400, a financial feat rarely accomplished by the newly freed African descended slaves!

With this as his legacy, Joe Clark grew up and stepped into the part of his story that I was mostly already familiar with. The founding of Eatonville was a momentous and ground breaking event in the South. Joe Clark’s dream of a town founded, inhabited and most importantly governed by freed black men became a reality in 1887:

 

eatonville-founded.jpg
Joseph Clark 4th from left. Photo Credit.

Covering every aspect of Joseph Clark’s life including the tragedies and hardships as well as his victories, The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark filled in some of the blanks of his history that I was unaware of. Knowing much of the information beforehand didn’t make the book any less enjoyable to me.

This was a good little book. It covered a lot of ground in a very succinct and matter of fact way. It eschewed political commentary and stuck to the facts, and was well done overall. I am glad I stumbled on it while doing some research in our local library branch.

5 out of 5 stars.

coming from where I'm from, joy of reading, just for fun

June reading roundup…of sorts.

read2

One of the reasons I don’t post monthly reading summary posts is because the number of books I am reading in any given month are many, but the number of books I complete from beginning to end are fewer.

My books read often overlap months, which means I only read a few books per month in their entirety. Nevertheless, I’ll list the books I finished in June, since I don’t review every book I read. In sum, I have completed four books during the month of June:

  • I’m Too Young for This, by Suzanne Somers, which I didn’t review because the content was so similar to a book I reviewed before on the subject, but with much more emotive interjections than I would prefer. More than that, it wasn’t something I’d planned to read.
  • Otherhood, by Melanie Notkin, which I reviewed here.
  • Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, by Regina Jeffers, reviewed here.
  • My man Jeeves and Other Early Jeeves Stories, by P.G. Wodehouse, review in draft and coming soon.

It is standard for me to complete four books a month, or an average of about a book per week. Some books, like Wentworth’s Persuasion, are quick reads, but when I read any faster than about a book per week, I invariably find that I miss out on the depth of what I am reading.

Despite having completed only four books this month, I have read quite a number of books besides, and anticipate completing and reviewing those as the month of July progresses.

THIS is why I don’t generally do reading round up posts.

I don’t read enough volume or at sufficient speed to justify it.

But I thoroughly enjoy reading other book bloggers’ reading roundups. They give me something to aspire to.

coming from where I'm from, Els' Rabbit Trails, writing

Reading is easy. Writing is harder.

This blog is primarily centered around the love of reading and reviewing books. As such, it’s a slow traffic space. That’s fine with me as several book bloggers have noted that blogs generate the smallest amount of interest when they review books. Nevertheless, I am committed to the review format because I sincerely and truly want to encourage reading and expose books to people that they may not have considered.

However, that’s not all this was supposed to be about. I have been flirting with the idea of writing a book for several years. The topic is fresh, largely unexplored in depth, and quite possibly one of great interest. It may even be controversial, which would surprise no one who knows me well enough to have gotten my unvarnished views on the state of the world. Despite this clearly exalted view of my own brilliance and ability to come up with something “new”, I haven’t been able to get myself to start writing, and I am not quite sure why.

By way of encouragement, my beloved bought me a new computer this week. His confidence in my ability backed with concrete action toward helping me move forward is touching. I should be excited and ready to start typing away on my new laptop, but I’m stuck. And struck by the thought that, despite the ravings of my 1th grade gifted English teacher, those seeds which first germinated the hope that I might actually write something someone else wanted to read, the journey from germination to fruit is a long one.

No amount of confidence from my teacher, my husband, my friends or anyone else can prune for me the weeds of procrastination, eliminate the squash bugs of doubt, nor cure the blight of writer’s block which sends me back to the easy comfort of reading books and writing book reviews.

In other words, reading a book is easy. Writing one? That’s hard.

 

coming from where I'm from, Culture, health and fitness, nonfiction, tales from the local library

Better Than Before

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin. Published in 2015. 320 pages.

I am in the process of re-establishing good habits that I allowed to waver over the past year, while also (and probably more importantly) working to let go of some bad habits. As I have been contemplating and making some pretty big changes of late, I stumbled upon this book in our local library. I was curious enough about the possible research and information to pick it up and give it a look.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the NYT best-selling book, The Happiness Project. I was not familiar with her work prior to stumbling upon this book. That’s a good thing. Had I been familiar with her claim to fame, I might have been inclined to skip picking up this book, which I found pretty insightful.

It wasn’t so much that Rubin broke any new ground here, as much as she put it all together in ways that made sense; to me at least. It is entirely possible that we are more open to and impressed by ideas that speak to where we are on a particular leg of life’s journey. However, even with that concession, I think this is a good book for anyone in the process of trying to establish new habits and break old ones.

The trick to breaking old habits, of course, is to replace them with something better and stick to that thing until it becomes a habit. What Rubin attempts to do here is assist her readers with identifying what strategies will work best for them as they embark on a new habit or attempt to break one.

There is, as there always are with these things, general standards offered by way of a quiz to help the reader categorize him or herself in ways that best narrow the strategies that will work for them.  In years past, I balked at these types of things mainly because the idea that I fit into a neat box offended my snowflake tendencies.

As I have grown older, however, I have come around to the conclusion that while none of us fit neatly into any particular category (an obsession with categories is unhealthy), human tendencies can indeed be roughly narrowed and quantified enough that we can all use some of this information to help us achieve the goals we wish to accomplish. What’s more, there isn’t anything innately wrong or ungodly about making allowance for the fact that we all have personalities within we much navigate as we set ourselves on solid paths in life. The problem comes in when we use this information as an excuse not to change we should rather than tools to help us change the things we need to address.

As I said at the beginning, this book isn’t groundbreaking. Since there is nothing new under the sun anyway, we could all save ourselves a lot of angst by understanding that people the saying the same things in what we perceive to be a new or more comprehensive way doesn’t make it new. It just means that they said it in a way we can identify with. Like Gretchen Rubin did.

You can read an excerpt of her book here.

What I figured out from this book:

  • Unlike my husband, and my father before him, it is not enough for me to be internally motivated to do better in an area of change course in another. I invariably run out of steam if I don’t set up the proper guardrails to keep me moving in the right direction. That reality doesn’t mean I’m a “bad Christian”, which is what I used to think.
  • I can use my husband’s (and to a lesser extent one of daughter’s) stronger internal push as a guardrail. For example, once I decided that potato chips with a side of tears are not the key to managing stress, I took a page from this book and said out loud, “I don’t eat chips.” If I pick up a bag, I can trust my husband to take it from me so as to help me not be a liar, which would make me a bad Christian.
  • Our kids saw a lot of themselves in the four archetypes. Even the 10-year-old rebel has shown some growth since we all took the opportunity to examine ourselves in light of some of the insights here
  • Habits are surprisingly tough, and habits are surprisingly fragile (p.160) I totally need to remember that. You’d think after a year of running faithfully and spending a crazy amount of money -at least for me- on a race, I’d turned into a runner for life. Didn’t happen, but the health gains I made as a runner were so startling that I am back at it, this time with the understanding of how fragile habits are.

What I didn’t like about the book:

  • Too much of it focused on eating and health issues when most people’s most entrenched habits are related to things other than diet and exercise. For instance, my hurdle at this point is managing my Internet time. Exercise and eating are quite frankly, secondary. I’m in decent health and my husband thinks I’m gorgeous even carrying 25 extra pounds. The mental and time drain lost online however…that’s worth addressing.
  • Given the time this book was written, I was surprised at the sparse amount of time given to some of the other things people deal with as habits.

The good far outweighed the bad, however, and even without specifically mentioning things like social media, smart phones, collecting clutter (NOT an issue of mine), mindless spending (also not an issue of mine) or other vices, the book’s tools are easily transferable to whatever one’s habit might be.

Grade: B

 

 

 

American history, coming from where I'm from, educational, homeschool, nonfiction, Uncategorized

America’s Real First Thanksgiving

real-first-thanksgiving

America’s Real First Thanksgiving, by Robyn Gioia. Originally published in 2007. 48 pages.

I’m teaching a Florida history class to 4th and 5th graders this year and as Thanksgiving approaches, I thought it might be interesting to introduce the kids to what some historians consider the real first Thanksgiving, which took place on September 8, 1565. It was a feast celebrated between Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez and the Timucuan tribe in St. Augustine.

The significance of the nationally recognized Thanksgiving feast of 1621, led by William Bradford and Massasoit cannot and should not be downplayed, given that the British colonization of the New World laid the foundation for our country. However, no American history curriculum is complete without an exploration of Florida history, and for that reason, I found this book a valuable resource. I highly recommend it.

Grade: B+

It’s our family’s first holiday season without my father. As a result,  I’m reading very lightweight stuff right now, to temper the innate heaviness we all feel. We’re increasing extended family time, prayer, cultivating thanksgiving, and keeping the atmosphere devoid of heaviness. A few funny, fluffy, and even romantic books are in the review queue for the next couple of weeks. Consider yourselves warned.

coming from where I'm from, quotable literary quotes

Quotable Literary Quotes #3

This one is courtesy of the ever profound and straightforward Zora Neale Hurston. I have included it before in a review of one of her books but the thought has been pushed to the forefront of my thinking of late. It’s worth sharing:

“I did not know then, as I know now, that people are prone to build a statue of the kind of person it pleases them to be. And few people want to be forced to ask themselves, ‘What if there is no me like my statue?’”

This era of Pinterest, Snap chat, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs makes it all too tempting and all too easy to build statues which draw viewers to admire as well as those who spend inordinate amounts of energy looking for the crack in the statue. It creates a perpetual and vicious cycle.

Enter this bit of wisdom from Voddie Baucham, which blessed me greatly:

“Whatever is the worst thing you think about me, I know something worse about me. Whatever the worse thing is that you could say about me is almost surely not the worst thing about me. I could no doubt do you one better.”

Pause and think about that and what it really means. Freedom perhaps?

In the spirit of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, I would call this one alternately the “Must-Have-Others-Think-Well-of-Me” cure.

Have a great weekend!