He was the local legend, the city’s unorthodox free spirit, the small town Fort Pierce artist who could paint Florida’s wild, voluptuous beauty like no one else before or since.
A.E. “Beanie” Backus could make you feel the humidity wrapping around you like a hot flannel, smell the pine prairies of the back country or the fresh, salt breeze at sunset simply from the way he applied paint to canvas.
A Backus painting is a window on a nearly extinct paradise of water and wilderness.
That this American Monet was also a rum-drinking Florida Cracker living in a small cattle-and-fishing town circumscribed his career to within Florida’s borders.
In addition, he painted landscapes at a time “important” painters were working with pop art and expressionism.
“If I had been a starving kid in New York, like Andy Warhol, I’d think soup cans were beautiful, too. But why should I paint soup cans when I have Florida?” Backus once said. “Painting in the abstract for me is like a Baptist preacher giving a sermon to his Okeechobee congregation in French. It would probably be beautiful, but no one would understand it.”
Now, an art historian has written a book that compares Backus, who died at 84 on June 6, 1990, with America’s great landscape painters, such as Winslow Homer and Martin Johnson Heade, who also painted in Florida.
But no one captured Florida’s wet, golden light and the glow of its sun-shot clouds like Backus.
“My Alps,” he called the cumulus towers billowing over his scenes of Everglades prairies and riverside jungles.
Natasha Kuzmanovic was finishing another book when a friend who collected Backus paintings approached her about writing the first scholarly book on Backus.
“I said, ‘Who?’ and he said, ‘The artist from Fort Pierce,’ and I said, ‘Where?’” said Kuzmanovic, who splits her time between New York and Hollywood.
The book, written after three years of research in conjunction with the A.E. Backus Museum in Fort Pierce, is called “Tropical Light: The Art of A.E. Backus (Vendome).”
Bob Graham, who served Florida as both governor and U.S. senator, wrote the book’s foreword, in which he equates Backus with Florida’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Everglades defender Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“…(they) wrote about Florida in the same way Backus painted it, extracting and distilling its essence,” wrote Graham, who stood in front of his mother’s Backus painting for his official portrait as governor. “It is time that he is recognized as a major national painter.”
While famous Floridians such as Graham; Sen. George Smathers and his brother, Frank; Reps. Dante Fascell and Claude Pepper owned Backus paintings, Kuzmanovic discovered that few art scholars had ever taken an academic look at Backus.
His paintings have hung in the Governor’s Mansion, the Florida Capitol and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, yet Backus was seen as a regional artist.
Florida Atlantic University, which owns at least one Backus painting, awarded the high school dropout an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 1990.
“Yet nobody had seriously looked at him in terms of aesthetic theory, or aesthetic analysis,” said Kuzmanovic, who has a Ph.D. in art history.
During her research, she grew to admire the rumpled self-described alcoholic who, during Florida’s Jim Crow years, wove together a salon of free-thinking white and black residents around his studios on Fort Pierce’s north end. Generations of neighborhood children had the run of the place, some benefiting from free art lessons.
“He was an extremely talented artist, and he stands quite well with other national painters. His palette knife paintings (from the 1930s to mid-’60s) were avant garde at the time,” said Kuzmanovic.
“But everybody talking about him always starts with what a great guy he was. His amazing quality was that he was an amazing artist and a great human being, and that is a remarkable, very, very rare combination.”
I can attest to his kindness. One of my first assignments as a young TV reporter in Fort Pierce 35 years ago was to interview Backus at his un-air-conditioned studio in an old wooden house not far from the boat works where his family once built Backus sea skiffs. I knew a little about art history but nothing about Backus.
He was “in his cups,” that afternoon, which was, I learned, Beanie’s usual after-lunch state. However, he treated my clueless questions with respectful, even courtly, attention.
“I like to have a little nip this time of day,” he told a Palm Beach Post reporter in 1986. “And in the mornings, at lunch and at night.”
As I met people around town, I began to spot Backus paintings in homes and offices.
“Everybody in Fort Pierce has a Backus,” said Keith Andersen, a Fort Pierce native whose parents were among Backus’ progressive group of friends.
Andersen’s parents, Roy and Mary Lou, owned a bar and liquor store. They collected their friend’s paintings.
“He used to come to our house for Christmas,” said Andersen, who said his family — and later he and his teenage friends — often stayed in Backus’ house in Port Antonio, Jamaica. “In conservative Fort Pierce, there was this little Bohemian group of about a dozen people.”
Albert Ernest Backus was born in Fort Pierce in 1906 and quickly was nicknamed Beanpot, later shortened to Beanie. His father had moved from New Jersey to try to grow pineapples, but after his wife divorced him, began building boats. Backus lived with his mother, Jo, who maintained an open-door policy at their home, entertaining local whites, Seminole Indians and Bahamian pineapple workers. She gave her son his first set of paints.
In 1924 and 1925, Backus spent two teenage summers at the precursor to Parsons School of Design in New York, but when the Florida land boom went bust in 1926, so did the family’s fortunes.
Dropping out of high school, Backus started a commercial art and sign-painting business, until he acquired a patron.
Edwin Binney had invented Crayola crayons before building a home north of Fort Pierce in an area called Indrio. During the Depression, he became Fort Pierce’s major benefactor.
His daughter, Dorothy, became Backus’ patron.
At the time, Dorothy was married to publisher George Putnam, who left her to marry aviator Amelia Earhart. Dorothy and her third husband, Don Blanding, became Backus’ great pals. She built a mansion in the citrus groves and furnished it with Backus paintings.
When she arranged his first one-man show in Fort Pierce in 1931, Backus sheepishly put $5 and $10 price tags on his work, until Dorothy raised them.
He began steadily winning art awards while gaining statewide recognition and buyers.
All the while, a cast of local characters revolved through the Backus studio, where they danced and drank to Backus’ jazz records.
For most of his life, Backus left his studio doors open to friends and neighborhood children, who usually had the run of the place.
Kuzmanovic writes, “In the 1950s, Backus’ studio was the only place in Fort Pierce where blacks and white mixed socially…”
In 1957, a broke and ill Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” about the 1928 Lake Okeechobee hurricane, moved to Fort Pierce.
She quickly became a member of Backus’ group, entertaining dinner guests with her travel tales, such as the time she spent researching voodoo in Haiti. After Hurston’s death, Backus was among those who saved her archives from destruction, even collecting papers found in a drainage ditch behind her home.
Backus married once, when he 44. She was Patsy Hutchinson, the sister of his student, James Hutchinson, who later became known for his Florida landscapes and portraits of Seminoles. They were married five years when Patsy died of a heart attack. He never remarried.
To Kuzmanovic, Backus revealed his true sexuality through his portraits. The women he painted reveal little about the sitter. “His attraction to men seems to have allowed for a greater display of intimacy in his male portraits,” she writes.
Around Fort Pierce, it was common knowledge that Backus was gay, said Andersen. “Everybody knew,” he said. “Nobody cared.”
Backus loved his hometown, he once said, because its people were down to earth. “Even the tourists don’t act touristy,” he said.
In the 1930s, Backus found his artistic inspiration in the impressionists, particularly Claude Monet, whose ability to paint light Backus set out to emulate. He began using a palette knife, which applies the paint quickly and thickly.
The palette knife paintings Backus did after returning from World War II service are Kuzmanovic’s favorites, with their increasingly refined technique and nuanced colors portraying Florida’s unmistakable natural light.
Artist Jackie Brice, who often painted with Backus at his studio, told The Palm Beach Post in 1980 that one day her mentor pulled her to his back door and told her to look at the trees outside.
“Do you see the difference between the color coming through the leaves, the color bouncing off the leaves and the color of the leaves?” he asked her.
In the 1950s, Backus became a mentor to the first Highwaymen painters, a group of self-taught African-American artists based in Fort Pierce who painted Florida landscapes for the tourist trade, often selling them out of their car trunks. Harold Newton and Alfred Hair, who became a Backus student, were the Highwaymen Backus knew best.
Kuzmanovic closes her book by calling Backus’ paintings “the definitive images of Florida. As more and more of the state’s wilderness disappears, his works have also emerged as poetic memoirs of Florida’s lost paradise.”
IF YOU GO
See a large collection of A.E. “Beanie” Backus paintings at the Backus Museum & Gallery, 500 N. Indian River Drive, Fort Pierce.
Open Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sundays 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information, call 772-465-0630 or go to backusmuseum.com.
The museum also sells original Backus and Highwaymen paintings, as well as reproductions.
Original article by:
By Barbara Marshall – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer