Although considered as accomplished as some of the better-known members of the original group of 26 Florida Highwaymen painters, comparatively little has been written about Willie Daniels over the years. “Some say his landscapes are so powerful they can be mistaken for Harold Newton’s masterworks,” The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council says in their profile of Daniels.
Born in 1950 in Bainbridge, Ga., not much is known about the details of Daniels’ early life. According to AJ Brown, a “2nd Generation” Highwaymen artist – a term often used to describe artists who, mentored or taught by some of the original group, paint in the same style today – Daniels moved with his family of six to Fort Pierce when he was in the third grade. It was an auspicious move for a young boy with an interest in art (The Highwaymen Trail reports his first painting was on a cigar box) and in Fort Pierce, it seems, Daniels and his younger brother Johnny – who would also become one of the original Highwaymen artists – found themselves in the company of the Highwaymen artists from an early age: Mary Ann Carroll, Roy McLendon, and Harold Newton were all neighbors at some point.
This proximity, no doubt, brought the aspiring young artist into regular contact with the older painters and he began watching and learning from them. Although especially close with Al Black and Livingston Roberts, Willie Daniels cited Harold Newton as his greatest influence. “Harold was Number One,” The Highwaymen Trail reports Daniels saying. “Everyone wanted to be like him. Masterpieces off the top of his head.”
Once Daniels began producing paintings using the “fast style” of painting he had learned from the other Highwaymen, Al Black would take them out on the road to sell, often signing Daniels unsigned pieces with his own signature, aiming to fetch higher prices as the artist and seller of the works. Later, The Highwaymen Trail reports, Daniels began signing his own paintings by scratching his name into the paint with a nail.
Like many of the original Highwaymen artists, Willie Daniels sought other work when the demand for landscapes fell, but he continued to paint in his spare time. Having moved to Georgia for work at some point – even selling his paintings to his boss there for $35 a piece – Daniels moved back to Fort Pierce in 2001 when the renaissance of interest in the Highwaymen promised a return to full-time work as an artist. According to AJ Brown and The Highwaymen Trail report, he continued to paint up until is death in 2021 at the age of 71, “shocked and pleased” to find the demand for – and praise of – his work after so many years of obscurity.
Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004 and included in the prestigious Art in Embassies program at the U.S. Department of State, most Highwaymen enthusiasts agree Willie Daniels’ work is extraordinary. Skilled in brushwork as well as working with a palette knife, his work is noted for its traditional Highwaymen scenes rendered in his own impressionistic style, and for its eerie and dreamlike nightscapes.