History of SELF-TAUGHT

Alfred M. Fischer, "Looking at Bill Traylor: Observations on the Recepetion of his Work," in Bill Traylor 1854-1949: Deep Blues (1999)

Bill Traylor
Walnettos Figures Construction, 1939
poster paint on cardboard

Without doubt, Traylor, who worked his whole life, viewed his drawing activity as a type of handicraft; Shannon’s [Charles Shannon, who befriended Traylor in 1939] observation that Traylor gradually came to believe he was working for him confirms this. On a fence behind his "workplace" on the open street he strung up his drawings to sell them to passers-by. "Sometimes they buys 'em when they don’t even need 'em," he said to Shannon amused.[1] The statement indicates that he had no conception of the "autonomous work of art." When Shannon was asked once whether Traylor knew that he [Shannon] was an artist, he replied: "I really don’t know. I don’t remember telling him that I was."[2] Shannon certainly assumed that Traylor was unable to understand the notion of identifying oneself as an artist. Indeed, he seems to have attempted to guard him against such thoughts.[3]...

By definition, "folk art" serves the needs of everyday life, and surely Traylor understood his drawings in this sense. For the most part the customs, traditions, practices and habits of African Americans determine the nature of his drawings; and the expressiveness of their songs, dances and stories is rendered pictorially in Traylor’s work. In like manner his work can be placed within the realm of naive art, in so far as pictorial conception and reality become one: like children or tribal people, Traylor does not differentiate between image and lived experience. In his work there does not appear to be any taking issue, searching for meaning, questioning or problem solving; instead he "only" depicts what he has experienced, seen and heard, with unabashed high spirits and zest for living. The sincerity, unaffectedness and authenticity with which he does this are, of course, exactly the characteristics which the modernist artists could only emulate in their own works.

[1] Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco, Bill Traylor: His Art, His Life (New York: Knopf, 1991), 8.

[2] Ibid, 15.

[3] According to Cameron (Dan Cameron, "History and Bill Traylor" in Arts Magazine 60, no. 2, 1985, p. 46), Shannon "intentionally shielded" him ("for fear of breaking the spell").

Excerpt source:
Alfred M. Fischer, "Looking at Bill Traylor: Observations on the Recepetion of his Work," in Bill Traylor 1854-1949: Deep Blues, edited by Josef Helfenstein and Roman Kurzmeyer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999) 163-164.

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