I was fortunate enough as a child to have spent much of my formative years exploring the varied landscapes of Florida. From camping to fishing to days at the beach, these places made an imprint on my imagination that still hold their enchanting power. No matter where I travel or live, there is nothing quite as magical as the eerie solitude of a stump strewn cypress swamp with it’s black, tannin stained waters or the calm, morning fog blanketing a pine flat scattered with saw palmetto. And as much as these actual landscapes’ memories remain there is also the influence of Robert Butler’s paintings. My father, who knew Butler and collected his works, had a number of Butler originals hanging throughout our house. One of these paintings is of an old wooden shack in the forefront shadowed by a dead oak, drenched in Spanish moss; in the background the sun shines brightly over a vibrant green forest. It is one of those few images I can never shake, its hold so powerful. Butler’s paintings have come to symbolize, along with childhood memories, what I think of when I recall Florida. True art. They embody the places of Florida beyond mere reproduction, capturing the soul of Florida’s wild places and transporting the viewer to where they not only see the scene but feel and know it as well.
Butler passed away yesterday at the age of 70. A member of the Florida Highwaymen, a group of African-American painters, Butler was a self-taught artist known for his descriptive and vivid paintings of Florida landscapes and wild life. The Lakeland Ledger has a great article on Butler you can find here. Butler’s legacy will live on as his works continue to tell the story of wild Florida to countless generations to come.
For those interested in the story of the Highwaymen and their art movement, which started in the Jim Crow era, check out the these websites Florida Highwaymen, Florida Highwaymen Paintings, and The Highwaymen. Their amazing story has been also been documented in the video “The Highwaymen: Legends of the Road” (clips here) and in the book “The Journey of the Highwaymen.” A promotional video for the book can be found here as well.