Bill Traylor, "Mexican Man with Suitcase," c. 1939-42. Just Folk.
Bill Traylor, "Black Cat." Allan Katz Americana.


Bill Traylor (1853-1949), one of the most celebrated self-taught artists, spent most of his life as a sharecropper on the Alabama plantation where he was born. Traylor’s talent as an artist emerged suddenly after he left the plantation for Montgomery, where he took up residence at the Ross Clayton Funeral Parlor. After sleeping on a pallet among the caskets, Traylor would spend his days drawing, attracting spectators and children from the neighborhood. According to the book Bill Traylor, Unfiltered, published by Just Folk. “It is a mystery as to what could have motivated an 83-year-old man, born into slavery, who could not read or write, and had no training or exposure to art, to pick up a pencil and a straight-edged stick and start drawing figures on discarded cardboard in the spring of 1939. What is even more amazing is that, from that point, he almost never stopped drawing for the next three years, creating an incredible output of work, which is estimated at 1,2001,600 pieces.”   

BIll Traylor, "Woman Pointing," c. 1939-42. Just Folk.

Traylor’s early drawings were spare depictions of simple forms such as cups, shoes, small animals, and tools. He attracted the attention of a young Caucasian artist, Charles Shannon, who visited Traylor weekly and provided him with paper, pencils, and paints. Traylor’s artistic vernacular flourished and he began creating animated scenes of people running, climbing, fighting, yelling, poking, and drinking. Inspired by his memories of life on the plantation as well as the world around him, Traylor’s works provide glimpses of a long-gone African-American culture in the rural Deep South. Thanks to Shannon, the bulk of Traylor’s output remains today.

Shannon mounted an exhibition of Traylor’s work at the New South gallery in Montgomery in 1940 -- it was to be the only show to recognize Traylor’s work during his lifetime. It wasn't until 1982, when the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., presented “Black Folk Art in America,” that the art world caught on to Traylor's genius. The show featured thirty-six works by Traylor and one of his snake drawings even graced the cover of the exhibition catalog. According to Bill Traylor, Unfiltered “Today, Traylor is recognized as one of the most prolific, expressive artists of the Twentieth Century. He is called self-taught, visionary, outsider, primitive artist... among other things. But above all, he is viewed as an artist.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently exhibiting eight drawings executed by Traylor in the late 1930s. It is the first time in twenty years that the works, a number of which were given to the institution by Shannon, have been seen at the Met, and the first time that they have been displayed in the American Wing. According to the Met, “Featuring Traylor in The American Wing underlines our commitment to blending more works on paper into our galleries, diversifying our installations with artists of color, broadening our regional scope, and exploring fresh temporal and cultural dialogues among objects.”

The Traylor drawings will remain on view in the Met’s American Wing through June 2015.

Read more about Bill Traylor, Unfiltered on InCollect.