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Bill Traylor

A voice of history

Today, Bill Traylor is regarded one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century. As a person of color, born into slavery in Alabama, he was a close witness of history in the making: the Civil War, the Emancipation, the Reconstruction, the Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, and the steady rise of African American urban culture in the South.

It was only later in life that Traylor started to paint, drawing up a record of his personal history and of the turbulent times in which he was born. In only a few years’ time, the artist created a legacy that would inspire generations to come. His compelling imagery showcases the intersection of radically different worlds and reveals how one man’s visual record of African American life can amplify the story of a nation.

Bill Traylor was born in April 1853, in Benton, Alabama. His parents, Sally and Bill Calloway were slaves on the plantation of George Hartwell Traylor, a white cotton grower. Traylor is the only currently known artist enslaved at birth to create a significant body of drawn and painted work. Traylor was a slave for about twelve years, until Union cavalry came through the cotton plantation in 1865. It was sixty-four years later, in 1939, while he was homeless on the streets of Montgomery, that he would go on to become an extraordinary artist.

The mid 1860’s marked a period of radical change. During this time, Traylor not only witnessed the Confederacy’s loss to the Union, a significant social and political rupture, but also the death of his father. While the end of the war ensured his legal emancipation, Traylor remained entrapped in the economic structures of the South's Jim Crow laws. He stayed on the plantation well after, working as a farmhand and sharecropper. During this time, he married twice and fathered at least 15 children.

In 1928, after his second marriage had come to an end, Traylor, then 75 years old, left for Montgomery, Alabama. He would later explain his move in simple words: 

My white folks had died and my children had scattered.

It would prove to be a challenging new start: he rented a room and found some work at a shoe factory to support himself. However, several years later, rheumatism left him unable to do his work and he was forced out onto the streets. At night, he would sleep in the backroom of the Ross-Clayton Funeral Home. During the day, he camped out on Monroe Street, the hub of the black neighborhood in downtown Montgomery. It was there, at the center of the African-American community, that Traylor began his artistic career.

At the age of 85, he took up a pencil and a scrap piece of cardboard to document his recollections and observations. From 1939 to 1942, while working on the sidewalks of Montgomery, he would produce nearly 1,500 pieces of art. In his work, Traylor presented himself both as a documentarian and a storyteller. He recorded the day-to-day lives of passing friends and neighbors, as well as his own memories. Today, his simplified forms and figures provide invaluable insight into the hardships and realities of African Americans living under Jim Crow in Alabama.

Traylor started out by drawing, using a straightedge and pencils, crayons, charcoal, or whatever he could find, and later began to paint: stark silhouettes of people and animals, rendered flat and geometric, consisting of rectangles, triangles, half-circles, and devoid of conventional perspective. His subjects were often sporting some accessory such as a cane, a pipe, a top hat, or a purse. They would feature as static shapes or engaged in some activity. To emphasize the action, Traylor would start all the titles of his drawings with the words ‘Exciting Event’ - Exciting Event: Man on Chair, Man with Rifle, Dog Chasing Girl, Yellow Bird, and Other Figures.

These figures were depicted either by themselves or in interaction —drinking, dancing, conversing, or sometimes, something more violent. There are scenes of men chasing men with rifles or hatchets which may or may not refer to memories of brutality on the plantation. The figures cannot be definitively identified based on shape or color. What is, however, considered a clear reference to racism is his drawing of a white man holding a colossal and aggressive black dog on a leash.

Because the exact details of Traylor’s early life are unknown, scholars have struggled to interpret his work from a biographical perspective. Living through slavery, the Great Depression, Jim Crow, and the lynching of a son, Traylor certainly had a hard life and some of those events definitely became the subject of his drawings. The artist may also have had a deep knowledge of the African American conjure – the hoodoo -tradition - a folk magic that has its roots in Africa. Elements found in his drawings may be symbols that would be understood only by other African Americans who were familiar with the tradition. Some drawings, for example, include a man carrying a small black suitcase, which would have identified him as a conjure practitioner. Because Traylor was known to carry a black bag, those drawings have been interpreted by some as self-portraits, suggesting that Traylor may have been a conjure practitioner himself.

As an artist, Traylor also ventured into abstraction, creating works that consisted of pure geometric shapes. The simplified forms of Traylor’s artwork seem contrary to the complexity of the world he depicts, yet are instrumental to his act of self-definition through art in a heavily segregated culture.

In June of 1939, Charles Shannon, a young, white artist, first noticed Traylor and was immediately taken with his work. Intrigued, Shannon began to repeatedly stop by to observe him while he worked. He later remarked:

He worked steadily in the days that followed and it rapidly became evident that something remarkable was happening: his subjects became more complex, his shapes stronger, and the inner rhythm of his work began to assert itself.

Soon thereafter, Shannon began to supply Traylor with poster paints, brushes, and drawing paper. They quickly became friends. In February 1940, he arranged to exhibit about 100 of Traylor’s works at the New South Gallery in Montgomery. It was titled: Bill Traylor: People’s Artist. However, despite numerous reviews in local newspapers, none of Traylor's works were sold. In 1941, he organized another exhibition at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York. By 1942, when Shannon left to serve in World War II, he had acquired about 1,200 of Traylor’s works.

At that point, Traylor himself left the South, to live with family. At some time during those years, his left leg had to be amputated when it developed gangrene. Traylor returned to Montgomery in 1946, where he died in October of 1949 and was buried in a poor man’s grave.

While Traylor was alive, Shannon did not have much success in promoting his work. He however carefully preserved the works that he bought from Traylor during those three fruitful years that they knew each other and reintroduced them in the 1970s. The pivotal moment in Traylor’s posthumous career was his inclusion in the 1982 exhibition “Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Following this exhibition, Traylor was suddenly considered a great African American folk artist, the prices for his work soared, and he was included in numerous exhibitions of outsider and folk art. 

Since that moment, public and scholarly perception of Traylor's work has been in constant evolution. In 1995, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA) displayed Traylor's works. In 1996, six weeks after Shannon's death, MoMA included Traylor's drawings in the exhibition ‘A Century of American Drawing from the Collection’. More recently, Traylor has been accepted into the national and international ranks of the most prominent self-taught artists. Scholars and curators have finally moved away from labeling him as a "primitive" or "outsider" artist, and instead, choose to focus on his significance within 20th-century American art.

On September 16, 2013, the American Folk Art Museum hosted a full-day symposium, Bill Traylor: Beyond the Figure, to discuss this complicated legacy. A dozen scholars, artists, and curators came together to debate how to responsibly frame the life and work of Bill Traylor. Renowned artist Kerry James Marshall once wrote of Taylor’s work: “The way I see it, Bill Traylor has always been the property of a White collecting class.” He poses the question whether white and poc viewers can see the same things in the work of an artist like Traylor? He thinks not.


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Sources: Wikipedia, The New Yorker, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Brittanica