Dr. Carnell Smith
Dr. Carnell Ambrose Smith followed a difficult and unlikely path to eventually find himself in Fort Pierce, Fla. working as a Florida Highwaymen artist. Born in 1950 in Buckley, W. Va., Smith was one of eight children who grew up in a troubled home with an alcoholic father. Sentenced to fifteen years in prison for murdering his wife in a drunken rage one morning in 1959, Smith’s father left his children without a mother or a father to raise them, and he and his six siblings moved to Fort Pierce to live with their older sister Christine.
In Fort Pierce, the family found stability and safety. Smith attended the Lincoln Park Academy where his teacher Zanobia Jefferson introduced him to painting, as she did for several of the Highwaymen painters. When his older sister Dorothea married Alfred Hair, the artist credited with organizing the Fort Pierce group of Highwaymen artists, Smith moved in with the couple and began learning from Hair.
A hardworking teenager, Carnell Smith had picked cotton in West Virginia and was usually picking citrus on the weekends in the groves around Fort Pierce, but when he saw that Hair was making a decent living painting and selling his work, he quickly changed focus and welcomed Hair’s mentorship and his presence in his life as a father figure.
“We made more painting than we did picking fruit and tomatoes working in the grove,” Smith said in a 2011 video interview. “It was either do that and take care of your family or paint and take care of them. We found out through painting it was a little better and a little easier.”
As Hair organized his group of painters, Smith joined in to help where he could. First making frames and, later, joining Highwaymen painter Al Black on the road selling the group’s works door to door along Florida’s highways. Eventually, he and Dorothea began painting Hair’s backgrounds and skies when demand for Hair’s work soared and he needed to increase production. “I was painting whole paintings for him,” Smith said in the 2011 video. “He had about seven or eight salesmen and me and him and my sister, Doretha Hair would do the paintings and they would do the selling.”
It wasn’t until after Hair was shot and killed in 1970 that Smith began painting his own work. He continued painting for a short time, eventually moving on to a life committed to ministry, earning a bachelor’s degree in Ministry from Canon Bible College and Seminary University in Orlando, and later doctoral degree in theology from the United International Chaplain School Pennsylvania.
When the Florida Highwaymen artists became something of a phenomenon in the late 90s, Smith was busy attending to his ministry and family in Pennsylvania, unaware of the group’s fame, or even that they had been dubbed “The Highwaymen,” documentarian Jack Hambrick reported in a blog post in 2008. He enjoyed the recognition the group was receiving, he told the Sun Sentinel in a 2015 interview. “During those days we were just artists, black guys painting. We make a living now. Back then we were selling them for like $20, $25, $30, $35 and we made a living back then doing it. It could range from $500 to $10,000 or $15,000 now. Much better. A whole lot better.”
Carnell Smith’s work features Poinciana and palm trees and is known for its generally upbeat and optimistic renderings of the Sunshine State. “Smith claimed that God gave him his talent and he recognized it when he received faith,” reports The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council. “He prayed when he painted, understanding that God creates beauty in the world.”
Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, Carnell Smith died in 2015 after a long battle with cancer.