“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Fort Pierce in St. Lucie County, Florida — The American South (South Atlantic)

A.E. “Bean” Backus

— The Highwaymen Heritage Trail —

A.E. “Bean” Backus Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Brandon D Cross, June 26, 2022
1. A.E. “Bean” Backus Marker
Albert Ernest "Bean" Backus was a talented and revered Florida landscape artist. He is remembered for his impressionistic paintings of Florida and the Caribbean and the mentorship he gave to many of the Highwaymen, most notably Alfred Hair and Harold Newton. His generosity and quiet actions across racial lines is legendary. In 1984, he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Today, twenty-eight artists inducted into the Hall of Fame were students or protégés of A E. Backus.

Backus was born on January 3, 1906 in a pine and cypress house, built by his father on the banks of the Indian River. The house, located at 2203 South Indian River Drive, still stands today, much as it appeared when built. Bean's father was an excellent carpenter and eventually met great success in a boat building business situated along the banks of Moore's Creek.

Both of Backus' parents loved music and theatrics, and played an important role in the Fort Pierce Band and local theatre productions. As a result of these influences, there was always music playing in Bean's family home. His mother, Josephine, had a huge effect on Bean,
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as the atmosphere in his studio echoed her home as a kind of community space filled with music, food, and stimulating conversation. Visitors including blacks and Seminoles, never needed an invitation to visit, and were often invited to stay for supper. Mrs. Backus was a champion of the Seminoles, helping them gain recognition by the Federal Government as an official Native American tribe.

Bacus moved into his studio/home at 122 Avenue C (later renamed Backus Avenue) in 1960 and lived there until he died. His studio was just a few blocks from the Avenue D neighborhood where many of the Highwaymen lived and painted. Anyone who came to his studio was welcomed to music, food, drink, or artistic knowledge. It was a gathering place for people of all races. Many say that Bean was “colored blind”; a reference to his contempt and thwarting of the Jim Crowe segregation laws and discrimination of any kind.

Backus is credited with teaching art to a wide range of students. He considered teaching to be a significant part of his life and took many students under his wing over the years. No one knows how many artists actually studied with Backus or were merely mentored or inspired by him; estimates put the number in the hundreds. Backus’ protégés are also referred to as “The Indian River School of Artists”, of which the Florida Highwaymen are an important subset.

A.E. “Bean” Backus Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Brandon D Cross, June 26, 2022
2. A.E. “Bean” Backus Marker
was around 1954 when a Fort Pierce Lincoln Park Academy art teacher, Zanobia Jefferson, introduced one of her most promising students, Alfred Hair, to Bean for art lessons and encouragement. Backus taught him the fundamentals of perspective and composition. Alfred Hair invited his friend James Gibson to tag along to the lessons. Gibson acquired painting skills and techniques from Backus and his other students while stretching canvases for Backus. "Mr. Backus looked at some sketches and told me I could put them in oil,” recalls James Gibson. "As he was explaining to other students, I would listen." Gibson said that Backus allowed him and other students to take paintings home to study and mimic. "You can't copy Mr. Backus,” he says. "But what you want to do is get the sky right, get the colors and perspective right. I remember Mr. Backus saying that talent was talent, no matter what color the artist," recalls Gibson. "It was probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me."

It is believed that Alfred Hair, along with fellow Florida Highwayman artist, Harold Newton, was heavily influenced by Backus' innovative painting technique of using a palette knife to apply thick strokes of vivid colors.

In the book, A. E. Backus and the Backus School, written by Sherrie Johnson and other Backus experts, it is noted that Backus, renowned for his generosity, gave
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the painters permission to copy his works. Even if the painters less expensive paintings might be competition. Backus was more interested in helping them than competing with them. Florida was booming and there was plenty to go around.

Speed and simplicity became hallmarks of Highwaymen art. Much to Backus’ chagrin; people say he was constantly urging Hair and his friends to "slow down!" But by ignoring his entreaties, they perfected not only an ability to speed production, but a unique style as well. People say that they often nailed multiple Upson boards to the sides of their homes or trees so they could work in assembly-line fashion, often through the night. It is also said that many of the aspiring young artists would often visit Backus at his studio for advice and encouragement, as well as free art supplies. Today, the legacy of the Florida Highwaymen is well understood to have begun in the Fort Pierce studio of “Bean” Backus.

Backus created an estimated 7,000 paintings during his lifetime. He became so acclaimed that in later decades he worked primarily by commission. Customers regularly waited years for a painting. Because Backus never had much formal art training, he had good reason to encourage Alfred Hair, Harold Newton. James Gibson and his many other students and associates to succeed as artists by working at it.

Bean Backus died at the age of 84 on June 6, 1990 from heart failure. He was cremated and his ashes were dropped from a plane onto the lavish landscape of Adams Ranch as a triple rainbow appeared. Friends toasted him from the ground, for a life well lived. If Backus were alive today. he would much prefer to be known as a great humanitarian than a great artist. The Florida Highwaymen stand as testament to both Backus' artistic and humanitarian legacy.

Bean and dear friend Biographer Olive Peterson
The Marble Game

Erected by Florida Humanities Council, St. Lucie County and the City of Fort Pierce. (Marker Number 2.)
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African AmericansArts, Letters, MusicEducationWomen. A significant historical date for this entry is January 6, 1906.
Location. 27° 27.07′ N, 80° 19.528′ W. Marker is in Fort Pierce, Florida, in St. Lucie County. Marker is at the intersection of A E Backus Avenue and North 2nd Street, on the right when traveling west on A E Backus Avenue. Located in front of the A.E. Backus Studio. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 122 A E Backus Avenue, Fort Pierce FL 34950, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. A.E. “Beanie” Backus Studio (here, next to this marker); St. Lucie County Veterans Memorial (approx. 0.2 miles away); The United States Submarine Service Memorial (approx. 0.2 miles away); a different marker also named St. Lucie County Veterans Memorial (approx. ¼ mile away); U.S.S. Maine (approx. ¼ mile away); Original Site Methodist Episcopal Church, South (approx. ¼ mile away); Sarah’s Memorial Chapel, Formerly Percy S. Peek Funeral Chapel, 728 Avenue D (approx. 0.3 miles away); St. Lucie County (approx. 0.4 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Fort Pierce.
Also see . . .  Florida Artist A.E. ‘Bean’ Backus: Inspiration for the Highwaymen. (Submitted on July 26, 2022, by Brandon D Cross of Flagler Beach, Florida.)
Credits. This page was last revised on July 27, 2022. It was originally submitted on July 26, 2022, by Brandon D Cross of Flagler Beach, Florida. This page has been viewed 181 times since then and 38 times this year. Photos:   1, 2. submitted on July 26, 2022, by Brandon D Cross of Flagler Beach, Florida. • Bernard Fisher was the editor who published this page.

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Apr. 24, 2024