Ottawa art collector to lunch with Michelle Obama

An Ottawa man's art collection has given him the opportunity to meet U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, who will host a lunchon this week in Washington, where he has been invited to exhibit his pieces.

Seeks audience with U.S. First Lady to discuss Florida paintings

A photo of one of 80 pieces by The Highwaymen shows the Florida collective's colourful depictions of 1950s landscapes. The owner of the works, an Ottawa man, has been invited to a luncheon in Washington with U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. (Courtesy Tony Hayton)

An Ottawa man's art collection has given him the opportunity to meet U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, who will be honoured this week at a Washington lunchon he is attending.

Tony Hayton is headed to the States for the Congressional Club's annual First Lady's Luncheon, and has been invited to exhibit his pieces at Florida House. He hopes to be formally introduced to Obama to discuss his efforts to bring attention to the work of a group of African-American artists known collectively as The Highwaymen.

The group of 26, who Hayton compared to Canada's Group of Seven, were young, self-taught painters who depicted scenes in the segregated U.S. South during the 1950s.

Their lush, colourful landscapes of their native Florida were painted on cheap construction materials.

Works to be displayed in Washington

"They could not find a venue for their arts. They couldn't find a gallery," Hayton said. "So what they decided to do was put the wet paintings in their cars, travel up and down the highway, and sell them out of the backs of their cars."

Hayton now owns 80 of the pieces, many of which are hanging in Florida House in Washington. He said art critics and historians are also taking note of their significance.

Hayton, a horticulturalist, came upon the paintings more than a decade ago, while spending time in Florida and looking to purchase landscape art.

"I was online and found a painting and it said it's a Florida Highwayman painting, and I said, 'What's a Florida Highwayman painting?' "

Will meet surviving Highwayman

Since then, Hayton has taken to the story of the prolific artists. His goal over the past decade, he said, was to get the artists known while they were still alive, and to share with the world the historic and artistic value of their work in representing Florida.

One of the remaining Highwaymen will meet with Hayton as well as Obama next Wednesday in Washington.

Hayton said he hoped a meeting Obama would bring the Highwaymen some much-deserved recognition.

"I've been trying to get these artists recognized while they're still alive, so … if this is another step on that road, I'm a happy man," he said.