Bill Traylor was born a slave on the Traylor plantation near Benton, Alabama. After emancipation, he worked there as a field hand until he left for Montgomery. Welfare records indicate that he may have been in Montgomery as early as 1936. During the 1940s, visitors of this black neighborhood would have been treated to a startling sight: in a chair, next to a Coca Cola cooler sat a massive, dignified old man with a drawing board across his lap. He never stopped drawing.
Traylor’s life spanned the American Civil War up to the Great Depression, and the scant three years (from 1939 to 1942) in which produced more than 1,200 drawings toward the end of his life were a slight, improbable, window in the history of American art. Self-taught Traylor—former slave, factory worker, and homeless welfare recipient who slept on a wooden pallet for many years—created his own extraordinary history of drawing in more than 1,200 images that brought to life a world of chicken stealing, hunting, plowing, preaching, drinking, arguing and testifying, as well as many vivid representations of the animal world. His technique developed rapidly; from the use of simple geometric shapes to complex abstract constructions peopled with multiple tiny figures in motion. The artist’s compositions, especially his “exciting events,” seem not so much straightforward depictions of what was immediately in front of him, as projections extracted from the heart of his vital experience and distilled by memory with a supreme talent for capturing the essence of things with an economy of means. As innocent as Traylor’s art may seem at first sight, his body of work often gives us a harrowing sense of the role of slavery in the configuration of African American identity.
Traylor’s work was interrupted in 1942 when he went to stay in several northern cities with his children, none of whom seemed to know what to do with him. Upon his return to Montgomery in 1946, he found that everything he knew had changed. He became ill and lost a leg to gangrene. The social agency that supplied his welfare check discovered a daughter living in Montgomery and insisted he live with her. Unhappy in his new situation, Traylor lost the desire to work. He died in a nursing home, a few days after summoning Charles Shannon (a white artist who was Traylor’s friend and patron) for a final visit. Most of Traylor’s work was preserved by Shannon, who arranged for an exhibition in Montgomery and, in 1941, had his drawings taken to the MoMA in New York. After Traylor’s death, Shannon began a prolonged effort to bring his work to the public. Today Traylor’s oeuvre is regarded as one the major triumphs of Self-Taught art. He is featured in numerous publications and his work is in various private and museum collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum American Art, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, and the High Museum of Art.