It was at his studios - first at the mouth of Moore's Creek, a stone's throw from where this museum stands, and later, at the northeast corner of Avenue C and Second Street - that both a forum and sanctuary were given to artistic expression, racial tolerance and gestures of human decency.
Born January 3, 1906 along the Indian River in Fort Pierce, Backus was largely self-taught as an artist. Abiding by the aphorism "Seize upon that which is nearest and make from it your work of art," he first became known for his still lifes of the ever-present hibiscus and later for his landscapes of Florida's backwoods. After Winslow Homer, he was one of the few artists in the early 20th century to depict Florida's rugged beauty on canvas
While Backus became teacher to a legion of artists, he is best remembered by friends as a humanitarian. It was around his kitchen table that debates would erupt on almost any issue. A rum bottle beneath the kitchen sink seemed always to be at the ready.
The conversations were often lively, if not shocking. Backus liked to have people around him with whom he disagreed. He said he could imagine nothing more boring than a night of pleasant conversation and liked to quote friend and fellow artist Waldo Sexton, "I'd rather be a liar than a bore."
Leaning back in a captain's chair, Backus could hold forth on any topic, ranging from personal finance ("Never give money to a friend on the condition that it must be repaid"); social etiquette ("Never throw a party and ask your guests to bring something"); and philanthropy ("You have to give away $10 for $1 to do any good").
Though Backus was alternately agnostic and atheistic, friends said he extolled the virtues of Christianity better than many Christians. His studio became home for Haitians off the boat, West Virginians off the bus, kids on the outs with their parents or friends down on their luck.
Backus also channeled much of his energies into influencing the children who hung around his studio. (Backus had been married, but his wife Patsy died when she was just 29, and they never had any children.)
For generations of "Backus Brats," the studio became the place where you might finish your first painting, steal your first kiss or win your first debate with an adult. The annual Backus Halloween parties, always intergenerational and interracial affairs, were a show-case for the creative talents of the latest crop of Backus kids.
Backus lived modestly. Appliances and cars were always replaced with used ones, and a single room in his house, the art studio, was air-conditioned. But he gave generously, writing checks or donating paintings to almost any charity that would ask. He also quietly helped finance the educations of several generations of art students.
Charles Lelly, a Unitarian minister, wrote of Backus in 1969: "Here is a man who gives of himself, of his time, and of his love. He gives to the rich, to the poor, and to the in-between. He takes in the destitute or homeless and takes care of their needs until they are able to stand alone. He never knows whether another man is white, black, yellow or red. He only knows that man is a person. He has the courage to be firm when necessary, yet is always tender...understands and loves, but rarely passes judgment...puts himself last and everyone else ahead."
Albert Ernest Backus died of heart failure on June 6, 1990. While the studio survives only as a place in the heart for the hundreds of people who knew him, his legacy continues in the museum that bears his name.
The A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery is a repository for many of Backus' paintings and personal effects - and an educational and inspirational resource for the visual artists of today.
Though Backus was a driving force behind the creation of the museum, he asked that it be known simply as the museum of Fort Pierce. It was only in the days after Backus' death that the museum's Board of Directors renamed the facility as a memorial tribute. The museum and the people who support it are testaments to the continuity of his artistic spirit.
The Board of Directors of the A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery wishes to thank Gregory Enns for sharing his personal knowledge and reminiscences with us. Enns, a Fort Pierce native and veteran Florida journalist, wrote "Ellington Essentials: A Guide to the Duke of Jazz" while on a Knight Foundation fellowship at the University of North Carolina in 1997. Backus had introduced Enns to the music of Duke Ellington some 30 years earlier. Copyright 1996.
A.E. Backus was largely self-taught, relying on books and magazines for much of his early training. His formal art education was limited to summer sessions at Parsons art school in New York City.
From the 1930's through the 1950's, much of Backus' work was impressionistic. Monet had been one of his early influences, and the French artist's use of color was adapted on Backus' early Florida canvases.
Paintings from this period are characterized by Backus' heavy use of the palette knife. His sweeping gestures with the knife and his preference for painting storm scenes brought a sense of unbridled vigor to this work.
In the last 30 years of Backus' life his landscapes became more representational, and he employed the brush far more often than the knife.
The backwoods paintings done at this time were often more serene and detailed than his earlier works.
Backus' success at capturing Florida's rugged beauty came as much from his scientific inquiries as from his artistic ability. He spent a lifetime studying plants, wildlife and meteorology.
There was hardly a cloud formation, Florida plant or animal species that Backus could not name. Even in his 80s, he could be seen around Fort Pierce studying and sketching the nuances the light of sunrise could have on a favorite jacaranda tree or sabal palm cluster. His favorite times of day were late afternoon or early morning, because the light is more alive then. Backus mastered light: the handling of light, the effect of light on the color of an object, and how light differs from day-to-day, season-to-season, place-to-place.