by Lamaur Stancil, Treasure Coast Newspapers
FORT PIERCE — She put food on the table by placing her brush on the canvas.
In doing so, Mary Ann Carroll became a legend among a distinct group of individuals. Carroll, who died Monday at age 79, was the sole woman among the original set of artists known as the Highwaymen, the loosely affiliated black artists who sold their work roadside or door-to-door in the 1960s and 1970s.
“In search of an escape, a way out of a life of poverty, painting helped her keep food on the table for her kids,” said second-generation Highwaymen artist Angela “A.J.” Brown.
“But no one could visualize that an upscale venture intended for whites only would become sustainable by an unlikely all-African American group, whose endurance would grow into one of the greatest art movements in America’s history.”
No funeral arrangements had been announced for Carroll as of Friday.
“It’s very sad when one of these older artists pass away,” said Marshall Adams, education director of the A.E. Backus Art Museum and Gallery in Fort Pierce.
The museum is named for Backus, a white artist who influenced the Highwaymen.
Carroll is credited as being one of the original six Highwaymen, along with Harold Newton, Alfred Hair, James Gibson, Livingston “Castro” Roberts, and R.A. McLendon. They all hailed either from Fort Pierce or Gifford. McClendon is the only surviving member of the six.
According to a Facebook page for Carroll, she was born in Sandersville, Georgia, and moved to Fort Pierce when she was 9. Carroll showed artistic abilities at a young age but aspired to become an attorney or scientist. She was drawn into the Highwaymen artistry as a teenager.
The Highwaymen were known for painting Florida landscapes. The artists were kept out of white-owned galleries, thus they took to the road to sell their work.
For Carroll, that meant sometimes driving all the way to South Florida to sell her work, she told former Treasure Coast Newspapers columnist Anthony Westbury.
“I could defend myself. I could throw a guy. I could box, and I could run real fast,” she told author Gary Monroe in the book he penned about her, “Mary Ann Carroll: First Lady of the Highwaymen.”
She’d drive her Buick as far as Miami to sell her paintings, always making sure she had enough gas to get back to the seven kids waiting at home for dinner, she told Westbury. And she always carried a pair of guns. Westbury described her as a “tough cookie” in his column.
Aside from painting, Carroll worked in tomato fields and did electrical or plumbing work.
In May 2011, Carroll presented one of her paintings to First Lady Michelle Obama during the First Lady’s Luncheon at the Congressional Club in Washington, D.C., Brown said.
Brown, a second-generation Highwaymen artist, said she bonded with Carroll when the first nonprofit Highwaymen organization formed in 2009. Carroll became the organization’s first president, while Brown served as secretary.
She was the generation before me, whom I held in the utmost respect, and felt a sense of honor to work beside her,” Brown said. “I was intrigued by her. I was getting to hang out with a living legend.”