Bill Traylor was born on April 1, 1854 as a slave on the George Hartwell Traylor plantation outside of Benton, Alabama, about thirty-five miles from Montgomery. After the Civil War, Traylor stayed on the plantation as did the other members of his family. He became a sharecropper, working his own land. On August 13, 1891, he married his wife, Lourisa Dunklin, and the couple had nine children together.
In 1935, at the age of 82, Traylor decided to leave the farm where he had spent his entire life. As he later explained to artist Charles Shannon, ”My white folks had died and my children scattered.” Having no one left to stay for, Traylor uprooted himself, leaving the small community of about 700 people for the comparative metropolis of Montgomery, with a population of over 70,000 inhabitants.
Upon his arrival, Traylor worked in a shoe factory, but rheumatism forced him to quit. He received government assistance checks to live on, and slept in the back room of the Ross-Clayton Funeral Home on Monroe Street.
Monroe Street was a busy, lively place. It was close to the train station and the river, so many travelers passed through. On the weekends, there was an influx of country people coming to town for supplies. Traylor saw many old friends, and was on pleasant terms with many of the people in the black community around Monroe Street.
Sometime after his arrival in Montgomery, Traylor picked up a pencil and a scrap of cardboard or some such material, and began to draw. His inspirations were the people he saw on the street, animals and livestock, and objects around him such as those found in the nearby blacksmith shop. He sat on a box, observing and drawing the vignettes he saw played out before him. In the spring of 1939, he was noticed by Charles Shannon, a white painter who was living outside of Montgomery, having received a fellowship to pursue his work there. Shannon became a great advocate of Traylor’s work, and helped support him by bringing supplies and visiting every week.
In February 1940, Charles Shannon arranged for a solo exhibition of Traylor’s work at New South, which was both an organization and a community arts center dedicated to creative culture in Montgomery. Shannon also helped obtain funds for Traylor to go to Detroit later that year to visit relatives, though he wasn’t sure if he would actually return. Traylor did, having only stayed away a few weeks.
In 1942, Traylor’s work was again exhibited at The Fieldstone School of the Ethical Culture Schools in Riverday, New York. It was curated by Victor E. D’Amico, who was introduced to Traylor’s work the previous year by Charles Shannon. Subsequently, D’Amico introduced Bill Traylor’s work to Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Barr decided to purchase sixteen of the works for the museum, in addition to buying some for his own collection. Charles Shannon was sent a check for the pieces, a sum that worked out to payment of one dollar for smaller pictures and two dollars for larger pieces. Shannon was incensed, having not been previously consulted about selling the paintings, of which he was the owner. He cancelled the transaction, retaking possession of the pictures. Later that year, Shannon was drafted into the army, and left the United States to serve in the South Pacific.
Bill Traylor’s time during World War II was spent moving around the homes of his various children, who were indeed scattered in Washington D.C., Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. During his time in Washington, he had a gangrenous leg amputated. In spite of any difficulties this may have caused, he chose to return to Montgomery, preferring his life on Monroe Street. He did not create any art during the war years, and though he did begin to draw again upon returning to Montgomery, the pictures were of substantially lesser quality. His contact with Charles Shannon was eventually resumed, but none of these later works were preserved.
Traylor died on October 23, 1949 in Montgomery. Shannon, in possession of 1200-1500 drawings, kept them in storage due to lack of public interest in his work. He exhibited them in 1979 at R.H. Oosterom Gallery, New York. Modern audiences finally began to take notice of Traylor’s art in 1982, when he was shown in the landmark exhibition, Black Folk Art in America, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Today, Traylor’s work has gradually moved from the appellation ‘folk art’ to inclusion in the canon of contemporary 20th century art. This brief, introductory biography does not begin to discuss the aesthetic qualities and iconography of his work, but resources are available in the form of numerous books, article, and exhibition catalogues for those interested Bill Traylor’s art.
---. Bill Traylor 1854 – 1947. (New York: Hirschl & Adler Modern, 1989)
---. High Singing Blue: Bill Traylor. Essay by Phil Patton. (New York: Hirschl & Adler Modern, 1997)
Fowler, Miriam Rogers. Bill Traylor. (University of Houston, 2001)
Helfenstein, Josef and Roman Kurzmeyer. Deep Blues: Bill Traylor 1854-1949. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).
Maresca, Frank and Roger Ricco. Bill Traylor: His Art and Life. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991)
Petullo, Anthony J. Self-taught and Outsider Art: The Anthony Petullo Collection. Introduction by Jane Kallir; selected bibliography by Margaret Andera. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
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