William "Bill" Traylor (April 1, 1854 – October 23, 1949) was a self-taught
artist born into slavery on a plantation belonging to George Hartwell Traylor
near Benton, in Lowndes County, Alabama. After emancipation, his family
continued to farm on the plantation until the 1930s. In 1939, at age eighty-
five, he moved to Montgomery, where he slept in the back room of a funeral
home and in a shoemaker's shop. During the day, he sat on the sidewalk and
drew images of the people he saw on the street and remembered scenes from
life on the farm, hanging his works on the fence behind him, employing found
materials such as pencil stubs and shirt cardboard. That year, he met Charles
Shannon, a painter, who, with friends from the 'New South' cultural group,
brought Traylor art supplies, such as poster paints (which he used), and
drawing paper (which he rejected), and bought his drawings for nominal sums.
During the next four years, Traylor produced between 1200 and 1500 drawings.
In February, 1940, the New South hosted an exhibition of Traylor drawings,
and in 1942, the Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York, hosted an exhibition
organized by Victor E. D'Amico. The shows produced no sales. During World
War II, while Shannon served in the South Pacific, Traylor moved north to live
with relatives. Returning to Montgomery in 1945, he lived on the street again
until relief workers insisted that he move in with a daughter who lived in
Montgomery. A requiem mass was held for Traylor at St. Jude Church after his
death October 23, 1949.
In the late 1970s, Shannon, who had preserved Traylor's drawings for over
thirty years, began to show them to art dealers and museum professionals.
This time, the drawings proved popular with critics and the public; two 1979
exhibitions at the R.H. Oosterom Gallery in New York launched a succession of
almost forty solo shows and hundreds of group shows in the years since.
Traylor has become among the most highly regarded and sought-after of self-
taught artists. His work is held in many public collections including that of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. The Montgomery
Museum of Fine Arts, with thirty-one drawings, and the High Museum of Art,
with thirty-five, currently hold the largest public collections of Traylor drawings.
The artist's work also forms a part of many fine private collections of self-
taught, contemporary, or Southern folk art. Prime examples of Traylor's art
have been known to fetch 6-figure sums on the international art market.
Traylor is known for his intriguing use of pattern versus flat color,
a sophisticated sense of space, and the simplified figures that give his work
a startlingly modernist look. Using a stick for a straightedge, he created
geometric silhouettes of human and animal figures which he then filled in with
pencil, colored pencil, or poster paints. Much speculation surrounds
the identification of mysteriously shaped objects, usually referred to as
"constructions," and the complex scenes he called "Exciting Events," which
depict groups of people energetically engaged in often puzzling activities.
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Albert Kraus, Bill Traylor in his daughter's
yard on Bragg Street, Montgomery, Alabama, 1948