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One Man's Life

The Folk Art of Bill Traylor

by Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder

Born as a slave, April 12, 1856* near Benton, Alabama - on the George Hartwell Traylor cotton plantation - Bill Traylor received the surname of his owner.

When the American Civil War ended in 1865, Bill Traylor was only nine years old and although slavery had officially ended, he continued to be a part of the plantation, working as a field hand and share cropper for many years.

He grew into a tall, massive man and he sported a huge beard. The census records of Lownes County Alabama show that at age 44, Bill was the head of a family of nine children.

Bill Traylor (1856 -1949)
Graphite drawing by Geoff Slater

Even after plantation owner George Traylor and his wife passed away, Bill Traylor did not leave the plantation until George's son Marion and his wife had also passed away.

By then, Bill Traylor was 78 years old.

It is not certain where Bill went after leaving the plantation, but it is believed that he worked for a while in a shoe repair factory, as well as on a road crew. At his advanced age he could not keep this up for long. Rheumatism and an aging body forced him to walk with canes.

At 82 years of age, Bill found himself in Montgomery, Alabama without a job or a place to live. He became friends with the owner of a funeral home who allowed him to sleep between the caskets in a back room. During the day you could find him sitting and drawing in a doorway on Monroe Street.

This remarkable man, now in his eighties, decided to draw - to record his life - using the back of old cardboard boxes as his canvas. He didn't mind the surface, he just allowed the uneven edges and smudges to become part of the picture. Using colored pencils, crayons and charcoal sticks, Bill drew with a vengeance. He had no formal training of any kind (a friend taught him how to sign his name), yet this remarkable man created his memoirs - a visual story of his life - with the simplest of tools. In a span of three years Bill produced no less than 1500 drawings - all of them stories depicting life around him, first from the farm and then from the streets in Montgomery. His unique way of observing others, provided the inspiration for creating a body of work which placed Traylor among the early pioneers of African American folk art.

He made new friends in his very visible doorway location. One friendship with Charles Shannon, a young white artist and photographer, lasted for the rest of his life. It is thanks to Shannon's support that Traylor's work was preserved, for it was he who arranged some exhibitions of this man's folk art.

Bill Traylor died October 23, 1949. He was 93 years old.

It was not until after his death, that Bill Traylor became well known - when his work was included in the Corcoran Gallery of Art's exhibition "Black Folk Art in America: 1930 - 1980". Today his work can be found in the permanent collections of many museums, some of which include: the Newark Museum in New Jersey; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama; Menil Collection in Houston; Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. One recent exhibition entitled “Bill Traylor 1854 -1949: Deep Blues” was held at the well respected Robert Hull Fleming Museum in Burlington, Vermont. A 192 Page catalog accompanied the show.

Bill Traylor left us with a immense pictorial memoir and we are all enriched by the preservation of his creations.

*There is some discrepancy over the year of Bill Traylor's birth. Some say he was born in 1856, yet the census records of Lownes County Alabama show that he was born in 1854.


Text © Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder; Photos Reprinted with Permission

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