First published: Summer 2014
In his eighties, artist Bill Traylor (c. 1853–1949) limned a bold, geometric world of people, animals, locations and “exciting events” in graphite, charcoal, coloured pencil and poster paint. More than 1,200 extant drawings are an enduring record of his long and challenging life.
The artist was born into slavery on the Traylor plantation, near Benton, Alabama, where he remained as a farm labourer after Emancipation and Reconstruction. In 1928 he moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and by the late 1930s, crippled by rheumatism, he spent his time drawing in a doorway on the city’s bustling Monroe Street. Amidst the frenetic energy of urban life, Traylor rendered what he saw and what he remembered: dancing figures appear alongside architectural details and animatedly aggressive animals.
It is not clear when Traylor began drawing, but artist Charles Shannon first came upon his work in 1939 and religiously saved the images. Despite Shannon’s tireless promotion of Traylor’s oeuvre, it did not garner substantial art world attention until the late 1970s. Its inclusion in 1982’s “Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, finally established Traylor’s position as a noteworthy American self-taught artist.
Since then, the pieces have been increasingly respected and embraced for their graphic power and modernist sensibilities, and over the past few years noteworthy market prices, full-blown scholarly studies and ambitious museum exhibitions have changed the way we think about – and what we know about – the artist and his world.