Note from Jessica: One of the things that I’d like to start doing is profiling some of my favorite artists, writers, and friends. I am hoping to start interviewing living people soon too, so if you have any ideas of good interview questions, or if you would like to be my guinea pig, please let me know! For the first few profiles, I thought I’d introduce some of my favorite artists.
I first saw Bill Traylor’s (1853–1949) work at the Whitney Museum’s “America is Hard to See” exhibit a few months ago. The first thing I learned is that Bill Traylor is from Alabama like me. He was born into slavery, worked as a sharecropper after he was emancipated, and moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1928. Several years later, he lost his job due to rheumatism and became homeless. Traylor didn’t start drawing until 1938, when he was already 85 years old. Over the last decade of his life, he produced somewhere between 1,200 – 1,500 pieces of art.
Bill Traylor was a self-taught artist. He drew on a variety of sources for inspiration in his art, from past memories of living on a plantation to the events occurring in “Dark Town”, the six-block African-American community in Montgomery. Although he had an exhibition during his lifetime, he did not become widely known and celebrated until around the 1980s.
Traylor drew many variations of this standoff between a well-dressed couple, who engage each other with eye-to-eye contact, flashing fingers and animated body language and generally appear ready to invade each other’s spaces. [Artist Charles] Shannon recounted that Traylor once observed of such scenes, “She’s not asking him where he’s been, she’s telling him.”
There are some recurring motifs throughout his work, animals, mostly dogs, fighting couples, urban life, and a really unique use of negative space. He drew mainly on found objects, discarded cardboard boxes that he salvaged from the garbage. He sometimes worked the stains and dirt of the cardboard seamlessly into his art.
It is impossible to read about Traylor’s work without thinking about the implicit issues of how art historians and scholars deal with race. In the 1980s, Traylor’s work was described as “primitive” while European and white American artists were “modernists”. Traylor has been put into a genre called “Outsider Art.” Some scholars argue that Traylor has become the perfect example of a slave-turned-artist for American history because his art is effusively optimistic, playful and funny despite all of the hardships he suffered. His art is (arguably) not racially-charged, not angry about Jim Crow laws or the treatment of blacks in America, which makes the art community feel safe and comfortable around his art. G. Roger Denson writes about this much more eloquently and intellectually than I can:
In Traylor’s case, to appear childlike has a more profound meaning–that of survival–of flagging himself as unthreatening to a white world.
I like Bill Traylor’s work because I find him inspiring, the scholarship surrounding his work interesting, and his work smart and witty. There is still a lot that I need to read about him, and I am excited to share more with you as I come across it. Have you heard of him before? Have you seen his work before in person?
- Resisting the Whitening of Bill Traylor: Why We Should Remember the Slave and Sharecropper as much as the Artist
- Clues to the deceptive complexity of Bill Traylor’s folk art
- Watch a trailer for a documentary about Bill Traylor called Bill Traylor Chasing Ghosts
- Traylor in Motion: Wonders from New York Collections and Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts
All artwork is by Bill Traylor