Self-taught artist Bill Traylor didn’t pick up a pencil until he was 85, but went on to produce over 1,500 pieces of the most wonderful art…
His drawings now rank amongst the greatest artworks of the 20th century.
Below: BLUE CAT
Born into slavery in Alabama in 1854 he worked on the land most of his life. He left his farm aged 82 to move to Montgomery where he found employment in a shoe factory, but suffering from rheumatism he found it difficult to work and soon found himself jobless and homeless.
He slept on a pallet in the back room of a funeral parlour and spent his days sitting on a wooden box on Monroe Street, the centre of the city’s lively black district. It was there that he took up drawing, working on scraps of paper and salvaged cardboard and was spotted by a young artist, Charles Shannon. Shannon was so taken by Traylor’s work that he began to visit him every week and supplied him with paint, paintbrushes, pencils and paper.
Traylor produced all his art sitting on the pavement – an outsider artist in every sense. His work depicts memories of his life on the farm, or images of the people and animals he saw on the street about him.
Above: WOMAN WITH UMBRELLA graphite, crayon and charcoal on cardboard
Above: MAN SEATED SMOKING
Most of Traylor’s figures have some kind of accessory such as a cane, hat, umbrella, purse or cigarette.
Above: MAN IN BLUE PANTS paint, pencil, coloured pencil and charcoal on cardboard
Above: BLUE MAN ON RED OBJECT poster paint and pencil on cardboard
CART, below, is one of my favourites…
Above: WOMAN WITH CHICKENS
The other main focus of Traylor’s work was animals, simple shapes often in bold colours…
Above: TWO DOGS FIGHTING poster paint and pencil on cardboard
Above: BROWN BULL
Above: DOG WALKING MAN
Above: BROWN DOG WITH LONG LEGS
Charles Shannon staged an exhibition of Traylor’s work, but none of it sold.
Above: UNTITLED watercolour and graphite on cardboard
Over his lifetime Traylor had two wives and relationships with several women and fathered over twenty children.
After losing his leg to gangrene, Traylor moved in with his daughter, Sarah (Sally) Traylor Howard and died on October 23, 1949 at Montgomery’s St. Jude Hospital. He is buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery.
Above: UNTITLED graphite and ink on cardboard
Above: HOUSE WITH FIGURES poster paint and pencil on cardboard
Shannon had over a thousand of Traylor’s drawings when Traylor died and kept them in storage due to lack of public interest. But in 1979 he exhibited them at R.H. Oosterom Gallery, New York and audiences finally began to take notice.
In 1982 Traylor’s work was shown in the landmark exhibition, Black Folk Art in America, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Above: WAVING MAN poster paint and pencil on cardboard
Traylor was a fantastic artist, who like so many, was not recognised in his own lifetime, but leaves a legacy of wonderful, simple, brilliant drawings…
For anyone wishing to read more on Bill then I suggest PAINTING A HIDDEN LIFE: The Art of Bill Traylor
And here’s a great little video about him if you fancy a watch. It’s about 6 minutes worth…
words: CAND JUSKUS
images: various sources online