Robert Butler (1943 - 2014)
Born: Baxley Georgia
Robert Butler was born in Baxley, Georgia he moved to Okeechobee, Florida with his mother, Annie Tolifer Butler when he was four years old. As a boy he liked to draw and hunt. He spent a lot of time exploring nature and became well acquainted with both the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. His love and passion for the outdoors explains why most of his paintings depicted scenes with hunters, cowboys, cattle, birds, deer, wolves, wild hogs and turkeys.
One of Butlers first jobs was a orderly at a local hospital. This hospital position gave him proximity to potential customers and he was able to sell works to doctors and other hospital personnel. One Doctor commissioned him to paint a prized Appaloosa horse. Robert had to repaint the picture forty times, a lesson that taught him patience and perseverance.
Robert credits his mother, who worked three jobs, for his strong work ethic. She picked tomatoes, waited tables and cleaned hotel rooms to support herself and her son. Butler told Jeff Klinkenberg "She was one of those people who believed you could accomplish anything if you tried hard enough." In 1995 a white businessman who believed in her work ethic, loaned her $5000.00. She invested in a boarding house and with the profits she purchased a restaurant. She bought cast-off lumber from demolition sites at low prices and used it to build other boarding houses. Determined to save money where ever she could, she laid the foundations hersef.
Once Butler's paintings started selling well he quit his orderly job and started painting full time. Butler married and eventually had nine children. With nine children and a wife he knew what he had to do, sell paintings. In 1968 he took to the roadways and sold his paintings for around $35.00 much like the other Highwayman. He was a smart salesman, often targeting ranchers who had a great apprectiation for the land and who also enjoyed hunting.
Butler had a longtime friendship with Jim Fitch, the man who later named the Highwayman. Their friendship began in Okeechobee; they bonded over their love of the Florida landscape and the Bible. Jim helped Robert in the early years by building frames for his artwork and giving him marketing advice. Jim purchased his first painting from Robert in 1967. He sold Butler’s work in his Okeechobee arts and crafts store and later in his Sebring art gallery. Robert also taught classes in Jim’s Sebring classroom that was part of the gallery.
Eventually, Butler started making prints and advertising in outdoor magazines. He moved his family to Lakeland and opened up a gallery. At first, money was the primary motivation for his painting, especially as his family grew. He explained, “Listen, there’s nothing in the world like nine children to get you up on your feet and out the door painting and selling.” But as success came, and he was sometimes making $7,500 for a painting, he concentrated more on the quality of his work. Still, he traveled frequently and lamented the time away from his family. He wrote in his book, “A special tribute goes to my wife Dorothy and the rest of my family for the support they gave under sometimes difficult circumstances. Many are the hours, days, and sometimes weeks they have suffered the lack of my presence amid the family circle.”
Although Butler met other Highwaymen on the road, the Fort Pierce and Gifford group of artists didn’t directly influence him; his artistic beginnings were different. He claimed Bean Backus was a strong inspiration, but there is no evidence that they ever met. His skill came from hard work and careful attention to his environment.
Robert Butler’s life was filled with a deep love for Florida’s wilderness. On March 19, 2014, Robert Butler died in Lakeland from complications related to his thirty years as a diabetic. His marriage to Dorothy lasted over fifty years. Eight of his nine children paint or painted at some time during their lives.
Robert Butler 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); Florida's Highwaymen Legendary Landscapes by Bob Beatty.