The details of Ellis Buckner’s life elude first-person narratives from the artist himself, in fact most of the public record of this Highwayman’s life comes from his fellow Highwaymen painter and brother George Buckner, as well as from his son Ellis Buckner, Jr. via his book, Florida Landscape Through the Eyes of the Buckner Brothers, published in 2004.
These narratives, from the views of a brother and a son, depict Buckner’s life as filled with tragedy as well as triumph, a deep faith in God, and an always-present striving to improve, both as a painter and a provider for his family.
Born in 1943 in the historic African American community of Gifford, Fla. just north of Vero Beach, the community shaping the artistic fortunes of the Highwaymen 20 miles south in Fort Pierce was mostly absent from Buckner’s younger life. After his brother George gave him a painting set, the story goes, Buckner sold his first painting, a seascape, for $25 at the age of 10. The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, recounts Buckner, unhappy with the quality of that first painting, later returning to the original buyer and giving her one of his newer, “more accomplished” paintings.
After the death of his father, Buckner and his brother George dropped out of school as teenagers and began working to assist their mother in providing for the family of 12. Alternately selling vegetables and fish from a roadside stand, laboring as a picker in the local orange groves, painting signs, cutting lawns, working as a car detailer, and running a barbecue shop, Buckner was always on the lookout for new ways to improve his lot and that of his family. As his brother George told noted Highwaymen expert Gary Moore, “Ellis said there’s got to be a better way than this.” When Buckner happened upon fellow Gifford native Harold Newton painting one day, the idea of earning money as a painter full-time took hold.
Introductions to Alfred Hair and the other painters in Fort Pierce who were making money selling their paintings along the highways, and to A.E. “Bean” Backus – the established white painter who encouraged Hair, Newton and other Highwaymen in their work – were milestones in Newton’s mentorship of Buckner. After a few lessons with Newton, Buckner began painting and selling his work, returning home with “a wad of dough that would have choked a horse,” his brother George told Monroe.
Buckner took his studies as a painter seriously, and devoted hours to learning technique and perfecting his rendering of depth and perspective. Although a prolific and fast-paced painter throughout his career, his paintings took longer to complete than those of his fellow Highwaymen, and stand apart in their use of subdued or, perhaps, more realistic color palettes and photographic attention to detail in the water and skies.
Ellis Buckner died of complications from diabetes in 1991 at the young age of 48. Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, his work continues to garner fans around the world as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program.