Known as “the surrealist Highwayman,” Rodney Demps’ career as an artist is unique among the 26 original Florida Highwaymen painters. Never selling his work on the road as his fellow Highwaymen did, Demps is included in the group due to his direct connection to both A.E. “Bean” Backus – a local white painter of some renown who mentored a few of the Highwaymen painters – and Alfred Hair, the artist most often credited, along with Harold Newton, for bringing together the loose-knit association of African American “fast” painters who sold their artworks door-to-door along Florida’s highways.
Born in 1953 in Fort Pierce, Fla., Rodney Demps was interested in art from a young age. In a 2013 video interview with The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, Demps recounted how his painting at school led to an introduction to Bean Backus. “I started my artwork at Lincoln Park Academy in a class of seniors (8th graders),” Demps said. “My art instructor’s name was Miss Zanobia Jefferson. She carried me uptown one day to meet Bean Backus and I used to go see him from time to time. I used to watch him paint. I was learning to paint with oil because at first, you know, it’s messy. The more you do it, it gets cleaner and cleaner.”
According to The Highwaymen Trail, it was through Backus that Rodney Demps connected with Alfred Hair. Hair taught the teenage Demps how to build frames from the molding trim the group used for its works, eventually graduating the clearly talented young artist to painting the skies in his work, which Hair would later fill in with the landscapes. Although his own work was never included in the works that went out on the road for sale, Demps did have success selling from home and within Fort Pierce. “I painted a lot of Florida scenes. I used to paint the sea, the ocean,” Demps says in the 2013 video, “I used to paint in my grandmother’s backyard, underneath the mango trees, and I sold a lot of paintings.”
Following Hair’s death in 1970, Demps painted for a few more years, eventually going back to school and earning a Bachelor of Science in Health, Physical Education and Fitness 1977, and a Master of Education with a concentration in Health Education in 1980, both from Florida A&M University. He also spent two years as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and it was his identity as a Marine, more than an artist, that he carried with him throughout his life. Asked by The Highwaymen Trail how he thought of himself, Demps, then in his 60s, answered definitively: “I am a Marine.”
Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, Rodney Demps’ body of work is unlike that of any of the other Highwaymen artists. His early landscape paintings show a strong influence by Hair, infused with his own more painterly approach and an air of surrealism in their light and movement. His later work, which he took up again full-time in 2001, branched out far beyond simple paintings, and included drawing, collage, murals, and multi-media representations of various aspects of his life, from the military, to football, to depictions of his grandmother’s grocery store. He died on June 17, 2020.