Bill Traylor | works on paper

Bill Traylor in his studio

Poster paint on found cardboard, 17.5 x 11.5 inches

The reverse side with Charles Shannon signature

click to enlarge any image

Like many black men born before the Civil War, Bill Traylor (1854 - 1947) was brought into life as a slave. After President Lincoln’s 1862 emancipation of U.S. slaves, Traylor remained on the ranch working as a laborer, farm hand and sharecropper. At the age of 81, Traylor found himself out of work and out of a home in rural Alabama . When, as he said, “My white folks had died and my children scattered,” Traylor moved some 35 miles into Montgomery just before the outbreak of World War II. Living in the commercial district of this bustling city, Traylor spent his days working along Monroe Street and his nights sleeping in a shoe repair shop or the back room of a funeral parlor. Eventually he found himself living on a federal welfare fund check of about $15 a month and, unable to work at an occupation, Traylor finally set free his own vision and began to make his works of art.

Traylor is an unusual figure in comparison to other artists who make art over greater periods of their lifetimes. As a self-taught artist who began painting at the age of 85 and worked for little more than three years, from 1939 to 1942, during which time Traylor made an estimated 1,200 - 1,500 paintings and drawings, usually on discarded paper and found cardboard using tempera, graphite and crayon.

Because Traylor had no permanent place to live, most of these paintings and drawings were gathered up and stored by another Montgomery artist, Charles Shannon, who befriended Traylor in the summer of 1939 and watched Traylor’s industrious output and progress day after day. Shannon and a few other artists and supporters would bring Traylor various watercolor paints, poster paints or “showcard colors,” charcoal sticks, crayons, paint brushes, and colored pencils which he used only to his own pleasure. He rejected a set of pastels brought by an admirer and chose his color sparingly and obstinately, preferring to use tempera paint straight out of the little jars and never mixing colors. His use of secondary colors, with the exception of green, is relatively rare in this work except for in his crayon drawings. He often used brown, black, occasionally red, and rarely yellow. His favorite blue was a popular bright cobalt color used in sign painting and “showcard” posters.

Traylor’s use of the silhouette as a means of reducing storytelling elements to a minimum of distractions can be related as narratives to terse stories told with a sense of humor held taught by rigorous editing and a modest format. Most of his works measured less than 24 x 18 inches, the size of his modest drawing board.

Several stylistic tendencies are obvious but unexplainable. The majority of his solitary figures and animals face to the right, just as we read from left to right - yet this was a man who could not read or write. A black friend from the neighborhood taught Traylor how to write his name and in a few works it is possible to see his attempts at writing. His signature developed into a wildly sinuous line of cursive text with the distinct feeling of having been copied or, perhaps better put, observed just as he observed animate creatures and inanimate objects. Very rarely does language enter this work, but in “ICE COLD,” we see the words copied in sans-serif capital letters from signage on the side of the Coca-Cola dispenser that he often sat next to while making artworks.

Most of what the art world has come to know of Traylor’s work has come about as a result of the interviews and writings of Charles Shannon. Very little remains in the form of direct transcriptions from Traylor’s memories and observations. After Traylor’s death, Shannon attempted to attract the art world to Traylor’s work at a time when there was little interest in untrained or self-taught artists. Despite an unresponsive initial reception, Shannon kept the work safe for almost 40 years before finding galleries and museums in the late 1970s who were greatly intrigued by the work. Shannon found that Traylor’s work finally had the newly focused attention of the art world, beginning in 1979 with an exhibition in New York at R. H. Oosterom, Inc. Quickly following were exhibitions in Chicago, Montgomery, New Orleans, Little Rock, and San Francisco.

Traylor’s first big break with museum curators came in 1982 at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, in an exhibition titled “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980,” which featured Traylor prominently with 36 pieces. Among the many Eastern museums, often with many Traylors apiece, are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Museum of American Folk Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, all in New York, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC, the High Museum in Atlanta and The Menil Collection in Houston.

- Greg Kucera