Profile: Bill Traylor (1853-1949)

Bill Traylor, original name William Traylor, (born April 1, 1853?, Benton, Alabama, U.S.—died October 23, 1949, Montgomery, Alabama), African American self-taught artist who, over the course of three years starting at age 85, created some 1,200 drawings and paintings of people and animals.

Scant information exists on Traylor’s early life, but it is well documented that Traylor was born into slavery, the son of Bill and Sally Calloway, on the plantation of George Hartwell Traylor. He stayed on the plantation well after emancipation in 1863, working as a farmhand and sharecropper. He married twice and fathered 13 children, as well as at least two with women outside of marriage. In 1928, once his second marriage had come to an end and his children had dispersed throughout the United States, Traylor, then 75 years old, left for Montgomery, Alabama. He may not have gone directly from the plantation to the city, according to some sources, instead spending the years between 1909 and 1928 on a farm outside Montgomery.

In Montgomery Traylor worked at a shoe factory. When his rheumatism became too painful, he left his job and struggled to stay afloat. Essentially homeless, he began receiving government assistance in 1936 and found shelter in a back room of the Ross-Clayton Funeral Home, where he slept nights. Traylor spent his days on Monroe Street, the hub of the black neighbourhood in downtown Montgomery. There he would draw pictures on any available cardboard or paper. (It is widely held that he started drawing in 1939, though he may have begun a few years earlier.

Using a straightedge and pencils, crayons, charcoal, or whatever he could find, Traylor drew animals, trees, houses, and figures, mostly black but sometimes white as well. Those components were rendered flat and geometric, formed from rectangles, triangles, and half-circles, and his compositions are devoid of conventional perspective or illusions of space. His pictures reference both life on the plantation and the activity he observed on the urban street. He drew animals—rabbits, dogs, cows, birds, and others—in profile or pulling a plow or sometimes baring sharp teeth and chasing another animal or a person across the page or up a tree. His figures, always sporting some accessory such as a cane, pipe, top hat, or purse, appear either static, as silhouettes, or engaged in some activity—drinking, dancing, conversing, or arguing with another person. Traylor introduced all the titles of his action-filled drawings with the words Exciting Event, as in Exciting Event: Man on Chair, Man with Rifle, Dog Chasing Girl, Yellow Bird, and Other Figures. Many drawings suggest violence and some unnamed antagonism among the animals and figures. Traylor’s unconventional approach to scale often complicated the narrative and relationships within his pictures, when, for example, he would depict an enormous dog being walked by a small person. Some drawings show experimentation with abstraction, as limbs and bodies merge with unexpected shapes and compositional elements. Traylor used colour carefully (perhaps because crayons, poster paint, and coloured pencils were at a premium) and drew simple patterns on clothing and animals.

Charles Shannon, a young white artist, discovered Traylor drawing on Monroe Street in 1939. Immediately taken with his work, Shannon bought some drawings and began supplying Traylor with materials. In 1940 he arranged to exhibit about 100 of Traylor’s works at the New South Gallery and School in Montgomery. He organized another exhibit of Traylor’s work in 1941 at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York. By 1942, when Shannon left Montgomery to serve in World War II, he had acquired some 1,200 of Traylor’s works. Traylor himself left the South for a few years, to live with a daughter in Detroit and then with other relatives in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. At some point during those years, possibly during his time in Washington, D.C., he had his left leg amputated when it developed gangrene. Traylor returned to Montgomery in 1946, lived for a while with a daughter there, and then moved to a nursing home, where he died. The only known works by Traylor were undated but produced between 1939 and 1942 and are thus all dated as such. Anything that Traylor produced after 1942 was not preserved.

Because the details of Traylor’s life are somewhat vague, scholars and art critics 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 faced many hardships, and some of those have been teased out of imagery in his drawings. Traylor may have had a deep knowledge of the African American conjure (or hoodoo) tradition—folk magic with roots in Africa—and elements found in his drawings may have been included as symbols to be understood by other African Americans who were familiar with the tradition. For example, some drawings include a man carrying a small black suitcase, which would have identified him as a conjure practitioner. Because Traylor himself 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.

While Traylor was alive, Shannon did not have much success stirring enthusiasm for his work. Shannon preserved the works that he bought from Traylor during those three fruitful years (1939–42) 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 Artin Washington, D.C. Following that exhibition, Traylor was heralded as a great African American folk artist, prices for his work soared, and he was included in numerous exhibitions of outsider and folk art.

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