February 10, 2020

POSTED BY

Rafael Esquer

CATEGORY

A Cat, a Hare, and a Horse: The Work of Bill Traylor

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Looking at the sublime work of African-American artist Bill Traylor is hard to believe his remarkable story. Born into slavery, the self-thought artist didn’t start making art until age 75. Before that he worked his entire life on an Alabama Plantation. “My white folks had died and my children had …

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Looking at the sublime work of African-American artist Bill Traylor is hard to believe his remarkable story. Born into slavery, the self-thought artist didn’t start making art until age 75. Before that he worked his entire life on an Alabama Plantation. “My white folks had died and my children had scattered” he told as the reason that, in 1928, he moved to the state capital of Montgomery. It was there where he drew for the first time.

Life was hard for him in Alabama; he dealt with painful rheumatism which made it very difficult to find a job. With almost no income, he eventually ended up homeless. In 1939, eleven years after he had arrived in Montgomery, Trayler met artist Charles Shanon who became his champion and gave him art materials and preserved his old drawings.

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His first show titled Bill Traylor: People’s Artist opened in 1940. The show presented a hundred of his drawings; he sold none despite positive reviews. Recognition didn’t come until the late 70s, some thirty years after his death.

His inspiration came from his own experiences and observations from rural and urban life. The elements of Traylor’s visual vocabulary are simple—people, plants, animals, architecture—yet profound. He was a master of storytelling, he didn’t need to fill his canvases to make big statements, like poetry. From his day-to-day observations in the city, he documented the lives of friends and neighbors. From past experiences collected at his birthplace, Benton, he brought rural characters to his work: people, places, animals.

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There is something magical about his work that has stopping power. Trayler’s work possesses the elusive je ne sais quoi that we all long for but only very few have. It’s simple, seductive, sincere, and sophisticated, everything at once.

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All images ©Bill Traylor