Mary Ann Carroll
Mary Ann Carroll counts such luminaries as former First Lady Michelle Obama among her fans, and her work hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, but the Florida Highwaymen artist wasn’t always one of the most celebrated of her contemporaries.
This First Lady of the Highwaymen, as noted Highwaymen expert and author Gary Moore annointed Carroll in his book of the same name, started life out inauspiciously as the daughter of sharecroppers in rural Georgia. Born in 1940 in Sandersville, Carroll’s early life in Georgia is unremarkable in terms of foreshadowing the heights her career would reach later in life. Always interested in drawing and painting from an early age, she told The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, that a drawing of a thermometer she’d done in a science class became her “first art exhibition,” when her impressed teacher tacked it up on the bulletin board.
As with many of the other Highwaymen painters, Harold Newton was Carroll’s introduction to the group and first showed her the techniques of the “fast painting,” and how to mix colors and make the frames the group used for their work. First meeting Newton in 1956 at the age of 16, by 18 she was selling her work alongside the early male painters of the group up and down Florida’s highways. Her first sales were a revelation; she made more selling art than she did at her jobs as a maid or picking in the citrus groves, and she was hooked.
As much out of necessity as out of love for the work, Carroll worked diligently throughout the 60s and rightfully earned her place among her male counterparts in the history of the Highwaymen painters. “Life is not about being a male or a female,” she told The Highwaymen Trail, “It’s about surviving.” After Alfred Hair, a founding member of the group alongside Newton, was murdered in 1970, Carroll continued to work – at painting and many other side jobs to feed her seven children – and didn’t stop heading out on the road to sell her paintings until 1997. As Moore wrote in Mary Ann Carroll: First Lady of the Highwaymen, “Like her Highwaymen brethren, she travelled across the state, selling her art at hotels, offices, and restaurants where she was not allowed to drink, eat, or even sit. If the Highwaymen faced discrimination at every door they knocked on, then the challenges–and dangers were magnified for Carroll. She took pride in always having her pristine Buick gassed and ready to go and her small handgun cleaned and ready to use.”
In her later years, Mary Ann Carroll went on to become a pastor – her faith a constant source of strength and guidance in her life – but always continued to paint, earning as much as $1,000 per piece. In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama attended an exhibition of the Highwaymen painters at Howard University, and soon thereafter invited the artist to the First Lady’s Luncheon, an event held at the tony Congressional Club in Washington D.C. Carroll presented the First Lady with one of her paintings – a signature Carroll depiction of a Poinciana tree on the riverfront in Fort Pierce. “I feel like a champ,” Carroll told local paper the TC Palm the day after her return. “It was a gracious thing that did not have to happen, but it did. I never expected this to happen and did not look for it.”
Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, Highwaywoman (Carroll was known to occasionally point out the gendered title art historian Jim Fitch had given the group), Mary Ann Carroll’s career spanned nearly seven decades until her death in 2019. Her talent brought her to heights the young artist would never have imagined that day in 1956 when she first encountered Harold Newton painting on a sidewalk in Fort Pierce. Known for her intense use of color, especially in her trademark Poinciana trees, the subject of Carroll’s work firmly focused on scenes of Florida’s natural beauty, including its seascapes and sunsets. From the White House to the Smithsonian to the U.S. Department of State’s presigious Art in Embassies program and beyond, Carroll’s work continues to garner new fans around the world today.