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Bill Traylor

 (1854 - 1947)
Bill Traylor was active/lived in Alabama.  Bill Traylor is known for folk art painting.

Bill Traylor

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Bill Traylor

Born a slave on the plantation of George Traylor near Benton, Alabama, Bill Traylor became known as a folk artist who did stark and simple drawings with colored pencils in a flat, child-like style.  His images are of plantation and street life, domestic animals and people going about their lives in the segregated South before and after the Civil War.

After the Civil War, he took the name of the plantation owner and chose to remain on the plantation, living there until he was eighty-four years old.  It is likely he had no formal education.  He worked as a field hand, and married Lourisa Duncan with whom he had nine children.  (He fathered another eleven children while on the Plantation).  As adults, they lived in Alabama, Washington DC and Detroit, Michigan.

In 1939 at age 84, he decided to leave the plantation, saying "they're all gone", meaning the grown children had moved away from the area and his wife had died. He moved to Montgomery, Alabama where he worked in a shoe factory until his rheumatism prevented him from doing physical labor.  On welfare, he took a rent-free sleeping room at the Ross-Clayton Funeral Home, and divided his day time between the local pool hall and the Montgomery fruit and vegetable market.

From 1942 to 1946, during World War II, he lived in Detroit and Washington DC with his children, but then he returned to Montgomery for a year where he resumed his former routines.  During this period he had a gangrenous leg amputated while living in Washington D.C.  He died in 1947 in a nursing home in Montgomery.

Traylor's artwork was discovered by Charles Shannon, a white artist, who said that "Art came from Traylor like water from a spring." (Rosenak 305-6).  In 1939, Shannon met Traylor, then eighty five, when Traylor was sitting on a wooden box drawing on Monroe Street in downtown Montgomery and had just begun prolific drawing.  They became friends, and Shannon provided art materials to Traylor and arranged for a 1940 exhibition of his work at the New South Art Center in Montgomery.  The director of the Museum of Modern Art in NY proposed to purchase 16 works for the museum in 1943, but the sum he offered was so low that Shannon returned the check.

After Traylor's death, Shannon was in possession of 1500-2000 of his drawings, carefully catalogued them, and in 1979 submitted some of the drawings to auction after showing it in exhibitions around the country.  The public response was very positive, and nearly fifty years after Traylor's death, he became one of America's more famous folk artists, praised for his unique abilities to express the culture where he lived.

Sources include:
Chuck and Jan Rosenak, Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art
Sotheby's New York

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery
BILL TRAYLOR (1854-1947)

Bill Traylor was born a slave on the plantation of George Traylor, near Benton, Alabama, in 1854. After the Civil War, he stayed on as a farm hand, leaving only in 1938 at age 84. By then his wife and the Traylors were dead and his children had moved away. He went to Montgomery, where he worked in a shoe factory until disabled by rheumatism, whereupon he received a government pension.

In 1939, at age 85, Traylor began to draw. "It just come to me," he recollected to a reporter in 1946. He drew geometric forms which he then filled in with color and developed into figures or abstracted plants. His subjects were reminiscences of his life -- the drunken preacher, opossum hunt, chicken stealing and the like. One day in 1939, as Traylor sat on a box in downtown Montgomery, he was "discovered" by the artist Charles Shannon, who saw in Traylor's work a resemblance to African rock painting, although Traylor knew nothing about that tradition. Shannon gave Traylor art supplies and featured his work at New South, an art cooperative in Montgomery, of which Shannon was a founder and member. In 1941 Traylor's work was shown at the Fieldston School in New York, but the artist continued to hang his works on a fence, selling them to passers-by.

In 1942 Traylor went to live with his children in Detroit, where he lost a leg to gangrene. He returned to Montgomery in 1946, where he was the subject of an article in Collier's magazine. In the article the question was posed whether Traylor's work would endure like the primitive cave paintings it resembled or "will it blow down the gutters . . . when Bill is gone?

Traylor was placed with one of his daughters in Montgomery, and subsequently in a nursing home, where he died in 1947. So far his work has not blown away. His drawings were shown at R. H. Oosterom Gallery in New York in 1979 and were included in the exhibition, "Southern Works of Art on Paper, 1900-1950", traveled by the Southern Arts Federation in 1981-82 and in "Black Folk in America, 1930-1980", traveled by the Corcoran Gallery in 1982-83.

The South on Paper: Line, Color and Light, Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc., Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1985, p. 62.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

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About  Bill Traylor

Born:  1854 - Benton, Alabama
Died:   1947 - Montgomery, Alabama
Known for:  folk art painting

Essays referring to
Bill Traylor

Black American Artists