James Gibson: (1938 - 2017)
Born: Moore Haven, Florida
James Gibson was born in Moore Haven, Florida. His family moved to Fort Pierce when he was three or four years old. Like many of the Highwaymen, James’ interest in art was sparked at an early age. He copied images from comic books and storybooks. Inspired by Bean Backus, he sometimes sold a drawing, which allowed him to purchase a serving of ice cream. He graduated from Lincoln Park Academy in 1958 where he briefly had Zora Neale Hurston as a teacher. His teachers and parents taught him to be respectful of others, a skill that proved helpful throughout his life. His mother always believed in him and so he was able to go to college. Majoring in biology, James attended Tennessee State University but had to drop out after two years because he couldn’t afford the tuition. Two of his younger brothers were also in need of college funds and James wanted them to have a chance to study. James knew from being home in the summers that Alfred Hair was taking painting lessons from Bean Backus. A letter from Alfred while he was in school informed him of his success and suggested that James should also learn to paint. So James headed home.
He met Bean Backus when he was seventeen. But it was having the chance in his early twenties to actually make money from art that made him consider painting as a serious occupation. Besides, James was unable to get work anywhere else at the time. With enthusiasm, he learned to paint in the backyard of Alfred’s mother’s house on 13th Street. In the early days, according to James, there were four main painters: Alfred Hair, Harold Newton, Roy McLendon, and James. Mary Ann Carroll and Sam Newton joined in next.
James worked for Backus when he could. He’d make frames for him and cleaned his studio. When Bean talked to a student about how to mix a color or think about a composition, James listened and learned. In the early days, he’d work through the night creating paintings. In the morning he would load the wet artwork into his brown ’57 Cadillac and drive to Miami or another coastal town to sell. He did well in beauty parlors and a jewelry store in Orlando. Some days he’d sell only enough for gas money to get home. As he got better at painting and selling, more sales were made and life got easier. After the Highwaymen got their name in the mid-1990s, people were coming to him and he stopped selling on the road. By that time he was spending 36 hours on a painting that he might have spent 36 minutes on when he first started out.
By the end of the 1990s, James reported that he had had three styles throughout his career. The first was painting for everyone. The second was painting for those who wanted to spend a bit more. By 2000 he was painting exceptional works that only a few people could afford. He had arrived as a well-respected artist. He continues to take more time with his paintings and critiques his work with vigor. He sets goals, like learning to make clouds the way Backus did.
James Gibson has three children, James Jr., Dawn, and Kim. He figures he has produced well over 10,000 paintings. Among his many awards is the 2005 Florida Ambassador Art Award. His work was displayed in the Florida Supreme Court in 2000 and 2003. His patrons include former Secretary of State Glenda Hood, former Governor Jeb Bush, and former U.S. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. Former Governor Charlie Christ used one of his landscapes on his Christmas card when he was in office. He created an ornament for the White House Christmas tree and several of his paintings have been shown in the White House collection. Two of his brilliant landscapes were featured in Steven Spielberg’s film, Catch Me If You Can. His beach scenes with windblown palm trees were perfectly placed on the wall of a 1960s Florida motel room.
James Gibson Biography information: obtained from website thehighwaymentrail.com. This website is a fantastic reference to learn about the 26 Florida Highwaymen artists and their importance to Florida's history.