”We improvised from something in our mind,” Hezekiah Baker told the New York Times of the Highwaymen’s work in 2001 during an interview in his home in Fort Pierce, Fla. The interview itself is perhaps most remarkable in that it ever happened, that an African American man born to sharecropping parents in Savannah, Ga. in 1940 found himself, 61 years later, sitting in his living room speaking to a reporter from the New York Times.
Baker’s career as an artist and his identification as one of the original 26 Florida Highwaymen ultimately led him to that interview with The Times that afternoon in 2001, but his journey to get there was by no means a straightforward path. At times a painter and at others a field hand, bakery worker, insurance salesman, and even restaurateur, Baker took what The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, describes as “an entrepreneurial approach to life:” painting when the money was good, and moving on to other things when it wasn’t.
Two key events in his early twenties set Baker on the path towards life as an artist, however: Entering and winning a drawing contest he found in a magazine sparked his interest in pursuing art; and Alfred Hair showing him he could make a good living selling his work.
Hair first convinced Baker to move away from the portraits he’d been doing and to focus on landscapes instead. He also showed the fledgling Highwayman how to paint quickly and, just as importantly, how to get his work out on the road and sold. He travelled alone selling his work, often still wet, to offices and places of business. “It was easy, really. I was surprised at the money we made,” The Highwaymen Trail says he told a reporter. “On the east coast, demand was huge; new buildings were coming up fast. The prices were right.”
Hezekiah Baker’s still and meditative scenes, dreamlike and soft, and frequently rendered in pastel hues quite distinct from other Highwaymen painters, feature impressionistic skies and sunsets and featured emotive ocean scenes often inhabited by a lone bird. His paintings sold well, but as tastes changed and demand waned in the 70s, Baker turned his sights to steadier sources of income and tried his hand at real estate and other ventures, before eventually opening his own restaurant, House of Food, in Fort Pierce – the very spot where author Gary Moore, now considered a leading expert on the Highwaymen, first encountered the Highwaymen painters, after taking a wrong turn off I-95.
Moore’s fortuitous discovery in Baker’s own House of Food spawned articles, books and, ultimately renewed interested in the Highwaymen, leading Baker to pick up his paintbrush again in the early mornings before opening his restaurant and in the afternoons after closing. Inducted into the Florida Artist’s Hall of Fame in 2004, Baker’s life as an artist came full circle when he closed House of Food and returned once again to his painting full-time, which he continued until his death in 2007.