Artist A.E. ‘Bean’ Backus could have created old wall paintings

HASTINGS — The wall paintings on the second story of an old building on Main Street here may be one of the worst kept secrets around.

“When I’ve mentioned the paintings, people will say, ‘Oh, yes, I knew about those,'” said Sandra Birnhak, a filmmaker and film preservationist who lives in the Federal Point area.

She first heard about the paintings from Steve Tice of the Hastings Cafe, and Birnhak ended up taking a photographer over to take shots.

People quickly knew what was going on, and that’s when she found the paintings weren’t really a secret. Still, no one had done anything about them.

“They’re kind of like a local legend,” said Malea Guriba of Pie in the Sky, a local grassroots program to help residents that is funded through selling pies and other items at a storefront here.

Birnhak contacted the building’s second owner, Craig Maguire, to try and find out more about the paintings, which are painted on the wall.

That began a hunt with each looking separately for more answers.

And that has led to what may be an artistic discovery of regional importance.

The paintings could be the work of A.E. “Bean” Backus, an American artist known for his vivid Florida landscapes. A teacher of other artists, he is considered a mentor to the group of black artists now known as the Florida Highwaymen.

Next week, two art experts are coming to take a look at the paintings, which decorate what was the waiting room for a physician and a dentist.

On the door frames leading off the waiting room are painted “physician” and “dentist” in paint that matches some of that used in the paintings. A Dr. Watson practiced in the building, as did a dentist named Huntley.

One possible link to Backus is that a dentist named Huntley lived on the same street as he did in Fort Pierce.

“Part of the enjoyment is the research and discovery,” Maguire said of the search for more information.

The five paintings are of Florida scenes, scenes that are more likely to be found in South Florida, where Backus lived most of his life. They are painted directly on the wall, as are the “frames” surrounding them. On the lower walls of the dentist’s office are painted grass, cattails and lilies. Vines are painted on the upper walls in the physician’s office.

At first, no one could make out the signatures on the paintings. But once the photographer brought up his lights, “The pictures just popped,” Birnhak said.

It also made the signatures easier to read, although Backus experts will have to make the final call.

“We haven’t made an absolute connection,” Birnhak said.

Painting walls with murals was a cheap way to decorate and a common practice when the building was constructed in 1927, Birnhak said.

Backus would have been a young man at the time, and such murals may have been part of his training ground.

Maguire says it’s amazing the pictures look as good as they do. Years of neglect and a leaking roof have all taken a toll.

“You cannot save them forever, but hopefully they’ll be here for a long, long time,” he said.

There’s also the concern about what may happen to the building if some new owner tears it down. The building is currently owned by a corporation.

“With old things, once they’re gone, they’re gone,” Maguire said.

There’s the question of how to remove them since they are painted on a form of drywall used in the 1920s. In the case of one painting, a row of nails goes through the middle of the artwork. While experts could do the work, it will be costly.

Throw in concerns about natural disasters such as a hurricane ripping off the roof, and you get a sense of the urgency about saving the paintings. Birnhak has had a professional photographer take pictures of each painting and enhance them on a computer.

The building is known as the Stanton Building, for the man who built it. Chris Stanton was an entrepreneur in the days when Hastings was a bustling town that drew cabbage and potato buyers and shipped out tons of produce.

His building housed several businesses, including an auto dealership, garage and farm implement business. Upstairs in addition to the doctor and dentist were a series of rooms apparently used to house brokers who came to do business with area farmers.

Now, most of the building is empty and used for storage. There have been no tenants upstairs for years, and that may have saved the murals from destruction.

Charles Stanton, the son of Chris, was a boy when the building was constructed. Although he has memories of the place, they don’t extend to the paintings. The records for the building apparently have been lost.

But if the Backus connection can be made, Maguire and Birnhak think that could be a major coup for Hastings.

“It could be significant,” Maguire said. “We want to save as much as we can.”

Birnhak agrees.

“This could be a real heads-up for Hastings,” she said, adding that if the paintings turn out to be by Backus, they could help provide the farming town with a new pride and a new source to attract tourists.

About Backus

* Name: Albert Ernest Backus

* Nicknames: Bean, Beanie

* Born and died: in Fort Pierce

* Facts: Active from 1920s to his death in 1990s;

Known for his vivid Florida landscapes, bright hibiscus and tropical flowers

Largely self-taught

Mentor to Florida Highwaymen

In Florida Artists Hall of Fame

Museum dedicated to him in Fort Pierce

Source: Florida Division of Cultural Affairs

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