Described as “a living legend,” and “the sweetest, most humble guy you’ll ever meet,” by those who know him, Curtis Arnett’s career has spanned decades beyond his tenure as one of Florida’s Highwaymen. Born in small-town Greenville, Fla., population 1,163 at the time of his birth in 1950, he grew up in Fort Pierce, Fla. after his family relocated there in 1955.
With drawing and painting at the center of his creative life since early childhood, Arnett has attributed a watercolor set he received from his mother for Christmas at the age of seven as the beginning of his exploration of painting. The paints brought his earliest subjects – Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and other favorite pop culture figures of the day – to life on scraps of cardboard and other materials he could scavenge easily.
One of the youngest Highwaymen, Arnett was just a young boy when he first encountered the group’s credited founder, Alfred Hair, when Hair gave a painting demonstration at the Lincoln Academy where Arnett was a student. It was his first exposure to oil paints.
At the age of 12, Arnett discovered accomplished local artist A.E. “Bean” Backus after riding his bike out to the Indian River to go fishing. Stumbling upon Backus’ open studio was a moment of serendipity for the young painter, and he wasted no time in enlisting the artist’s help in developing his work. “He gave me two brushes, a palette knife and 10 or 12 tubes of paint,” The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, reports Arnett remembering. “Back home, I started painting on plywood and later on Upson board.”
With Backus’ help, Arnett connected with the other Highwaymen, and continued to develop as a landscape painter. At 16 he sold his first painting, and by 17 he was earning $25 per painting selling to businesses and offices he found along the road. “I would just get in my car, load up my paintings and go. My primary route was US-1 to Delray Beach, then west to Okeechobee and Arcadia and north to Daytona,” he told The Highwaymen Trail.
Later in life, Arnett continued to develop his technique, learning from other Highwaymen as he went, especially Robert Butler and Hezekiah Baker. In his memoir Highwaymen Artists: An Untold Truth, Butler describes Arnett as interested in exploring techniques and subjects beyond those typically associated with the Highwaymen, and it was Butler’s, and later Baker’s, mentorship that prompted the evolution of Arnett’s early postcard-like depictions of palm trees and rivers into the more sophisticated renderings of the Florida interior, swamps, and seascapes he is known for today. Following Baker’s advice to switch from oils to acrylics in the 1970s, the prices a Curtis Arnett artwork could command soared to as high as $1000.
Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004 and still a resident of Fort Pierce today, Arnett is a sought-after speaker and teacher, and his work has been featured in countless galleries throughout Florida and beyond. He continues to paint, and his trademark hammocks, cypress trees, and reflective waters still feature in his work today, evoking an enchanted Florida, caught by his brush, and forever suspended in time.