“I knew when I met him. He was just one of those real people,” Highwaymen collector John Jetson said of his close friend and Highwaymen artist George Buckner in a 2015 Treasure Coast Business interview. “A real gentleman. The finest man I ever knew.”
Born in 1942 just north of Vero Beach, Fla. in the historic African American enclave of Gifford, Buckner was the oldest in a family of 12 children that included another famed Highwaymen painter, his brother Ellis Buckner. The community shaping the artistic fortunes of the Highwaymen 20 miles south in Fort Pierce was mostly absent from the young Buckner brothers’ lives but encounters in their later teens with a fellow native of Gifford, Highwaymen painter Harold Newton, would provide the impetus for Buckner to eventually join the group.
Early on however, George Buckner was focused on helping his mother support their large family after the death of his father. Both he and Ellis dropped out of high school after their father’s death and embarked on a number of pursuits to earn money. For the elder brother, this included picking citrus in the fields that populated the Indian River area of Florida, working construction, cutting lawns, running a barbecue shop with Ellis, and even a long stint with a group called The Melodeons, in which he played bass guitar.
It was painting, and particularly the “fast style” painting he learned under the tutelage of Harold Newton and Livingston Roberts (another Highwaymen painter living in Gifford), on which Buckner landed as his most profitable vocation. Seeing how much Livingston and Newton were making off their paintings, Ellis quickly convinced his older brother to cut back on their other jobs and focus on painting as a way to bring in cash. As The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, puts it, Bucker “decided being an artist would be a better life than picking oranges and selling sandwiches.”
Buckner also spent time learning from local white artist Bean Backus at his studio. “I admired what Bean Backus was doing, and I showed him my work. He helped me a lot,” The Highwaymen Trail reports Buckner saying. Throughout his life and beyond his time as part of the group of Highwaymen, Buckner devoted himself to perfecting technique and skill as a painter, always critical of his earlier work.
Today considered one of the most technically accomplished Highwaymen painters, his work stands out among that of his contemporaries in both its exquisite detail and precise execution. He is especially renowned for his skies and clouds, and the “shimmering” quality of his landscapes. “His work is extremely detailed,” collector Cathy Godsey told Vero Beach Magazine in 2000. “He captures the magic of Florida clouds on a par with, if not better than, Bean Backus.”
George Buckner died of lung cancer in 2002 at the relatively young age of 59. Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, his work has hung in the Florida governor’s mansion and Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee, and continues to be featured in Highwaymen exhibitions around the U.S. and abroad.