Charles “Chico” Wheeler
An extremely private man throughout his life, extraordinarily little is known about Charles “Chico” Wheeler. Born around 1946 to his parents Edith and Charles Wheeler, Sr., virtually nothing is known about Wheeler’s early life, childhood, and schooling. As his mother was a Fort Pierce, Fla., native, it is believed he might have grown up in Fort Pierce around Alfred Hair, who was five years his senior, and the other Florida Highwaymen painters who worked with Hair in Fort Pierce, possibly attending the Lincoln Park Academy where he would have encountered art teacher and Highwaymen mentor Zanobia Jefferson. This is unknown.
According to The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, Wheeler began painting with Hair and his group sometime in his early twenties, possibly after graduating high school and serving in the military. In his earliest days as a Highwayman, Wheeler worked on building frames for the group and learned painting by watching, as many of the new artists under Hair did.
Once he began producing paintings, Wheeler took to the highways along Florida’s East Coast, selling paintings to businesses, medical offices, and homeowners who enjoyed the iconic Floridian scenes the Highwaymen offered. Some of Wheeler’s work was quite typical of the Highwaymen genre, but some of it was decidedly unique in its depictions of everyday life within the scenes he painted. According to The Highwaymen Trail, Wheeler painted “figures that pick oranges, hang laundry, fish, and walk down dirt roads. His landscapes and seascapes are dreamy and colorful, often sporting vibrant skies. He also paints animals: deer, dogs, cows, and birds. His landscapes are more ‘lived in’ than most other Highwaymen paintings.”
Most notable, perhaps, is Wheeler’s painting of a woman with a basket on her head walking along a dirt road, acquired by the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture through a gift, and now part of its permanent collection. A remarkable snapshot of a way of life in rural Florida now long disappeared, the painting is an excellent example of Wheeler’s somewhat folkloric depictions of figures and animals in his work, and his bold use of color in his landscapes – flaming red poinciana trees against pink skies, nestled within a rich green Impressionistic landscape.
Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, Wheeler continued to paint until late in his life. He died July 12, 2019 at the age of 73, and is buried at the South Florida National Military Cemetery in Lake Worth, Fla.