Roy McLendon

Highwaymen Artist

Roy “R.A.” McLendon

Roy “R.A.” McLendon, an original member of the group now known as the Florida Highwaymen Painters, joined founders Alfred Hair and Harold Newton in their earliest days. Fellow painters Livingston Roberts and James Gibson rounded out the group of five painters now recognized as the progenitors of the Highwaymen.

Born in 1932 into a family of 14 children in Pelham, Ga., McLendon’s young life was one of getting by on sharecropping and migrant field work. Early in his childhood the family left Georgia for Del Ray Beach, Fla., and later Fort Pierce, where they settled and McLendon befriended Alfred Hair.

It was Harold Newton, however, who eventually convinced Roy McLendon to start painting. After leaving home at 18, McLendon moved to Gifford, Fla., the historic African American area of Vero Beach. With Newton now a neighbor, McClendon began watching him paint and learning his techniques. According to The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities CouncilMcLendon spent time with Newton and Hair while they visited their mentor A.E. “Bean” Backus, a well-known white painter in Fort Pierce who guided the two painters in their work. McLendon never learned directly from Backus, preferring to watch Newton instead. “In Roy’s eyes,” The Highwaymen Trail reports, “Harold was just as good as Backus, and sometimes better.”

As his talent as a painter grew, Newton convinced McLendon to try and sell one of his paintings at a local antiques store. To McLendon’s astonishment the store purchased his painting for $35, a significant amount of money for a man accustomed to the wages of a day laborer. After a lifetime of grueling physical labor at various low-paying jobs, painting full-time was a revelation for McLendon. Married at 20, with a family that would eventually grow to include eight children, his artwork became a lifeline for the artist in his 30s.    

Roy McLendon sold his work himself from his car on the road and, like other Highwaymen, his art was popular with a wide range of clients for décor in offices. Not a fan of Hair’s “fast painting” style, McLendon took more time with his work, and often branched out beyond traditional Highwaymen scenes of beaches and landscapes. His depiction of figures and narrative scenes – neighbors hanging laundry or a mother and child on their way to go fishing, for example – set McLendon’s work apart from the Highwaymen. McLendon told The Highwaymen Trail that he believes his work has improved over the years and that, “He finds it curious that so many people want the old paintings, whereas the newer ones are often so much better.”

Not to be confused with his son (and “second generation Highwaymen painter”) Roy McLendon, Jr., Roy “R.A.” McLendon’s work hangs in the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and is sought after by collectors from around the world.  Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, he continues to live and work in Gifford, often spending his days painting side-by-side with Roy Jr.

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