Drawings from the High Museum of Art

The Drawings of Bill Traylor
Bill Traylor (ca. 1854 – 1949) was born into slavery on a plantation in Dallas County, Alabama. After emancipation, he continued to live and work on the plantation until sometime before 1928, when he moved permanently to Montgomery. There he worked as a laborer until he was physically unable to continue. Under the challenging conditions of Depression-era Alabama, Traylor survived on the streets in the then primarily black enclave of Monroe Avenue (now called Monroe Street). He spent his days sitting on the sidewalks, creating the more than 1,200 drawings he is believed to have produced. Using modest materials, Traylor created a visual autobiography in which he recorded events from his past as well as his observations of life in the Monroe Avenue area. Traylor offered his drawings for sale to passersby, but he sold or gave most of his work to Charles Shannon, a local artist who befriended him, for modest sums or in exchange for art supplies. Decades passed before the larger art world took an interest in Traylor’s work. His breakthrough came posthumously in 1982, when the High Museum of Art acquired 30 of the drawings included in this exhibition, and Traylor was featured in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Black Folk Art in America, a show that generated unprecedented interest in the work of African American self-taught artists from the South.For more information, interested viewers may consult "Bill Traylor: Drawings from the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts," published in 2012.
Charles Shannon wrote that the human figures that appear in many of Traylor’s lively drawings represent particular people who passed by as he sat on the Monroe Avenue sidewalk creating his drawings. In the 1940s, the six-block district radiating out from the corner of North Lawrence Street and Monroe Avenue was the heart of Montgomery’s African American community. Between 1910 and 1940 the district referred to as “Dark Town” grew, stabilized, and flourished, boasting black-owned businesses and an upwardly mobile African American middle class eager for the latest music, fashion, and style. This was the bustling, chaotic, thriving black community that Traylor chronicled.

The consumption of spirits is a theme that often appears in Traylor’s work. The drinkers are typically lively and boisterous, their gestures conveying uninhibited revelry. This image is enlivened by the ballooning contour of the subject’s belly and the prancing movement of his long legs and tiny feet. The bouncy repetition of negative triangular spaces, the gestures—the figure’s raised hand bringing the bottle to his mouth, his swinging arm, and his prancing legs—and the spontaneous, mottled appearance of the paint application visually convey the man’s happy abandon.

The nature of the interactions between Traylor’s figures is often open to interpretation. In this drawing, for example, the couple could be either brawling or dancing. The repeated triangular shapes formed by their limbs unify the composition and lead the eye to see them as a single unit, forever locked together in their encounter.

This drawing of an elderly woman embodies Traylor’s eloquent symbolic vocabulary. Although she must support her bent body with a cane, the woman’s head is raised high, suggesting someone bravely making her way despite her physical decline.

One hallmark of Traylor’s drawings is their simplicity. He began with basic geometric shapes—triangles, rectangles, and semi-circles—which he then contoured and filled with pencil shading or paint. His compositional skill is evident in the way he placed figures on the field to suggest space and atmosphere. Here the man is positioned slightly higher on the sheet than the woman, suggesting that he is passing her on the street.

Animals feature prominently in Bill Traylor’s imagery. A large portion of his body of work is devoted to pictures of farm animals he had known well and remembered in vivid detail from the plantation on which he worked for much of his life. He repeatedly drew solitary images of chickens, pigs, goats, cows, horses, and mules, conveying a sense of individuality in each one. He told Charles Shannon stories about the mules that labored with him in the fields and other tales in which animals were the protagonists. In addition, exotic animals were featured in the annual parade that came through Montgomery. This is quite possibly where Traylor saw the elephant he immortalized as the Black Elephant with a Brown Ear.

In this highly developed drawing, Traylor used simple gestures to provide both horse and rider with specific personalities: the horse’s swinging tail conveys a sense of frisky pride, while the man’s stiff legs and jutting elbows suggest the rigidity of propriety or, perhaps, inexperience. Traylor refused to use clean, new boards, preferring supports that were torn or stained. Although he rarely incorporated the flaws into his compositions, the preexisting marks seem to have generated visual energy that stimulated him.

On the reverse of this drawing, Shannon recorded the date, January 1940, and Traylor’s comments: “Strong! He’ll pull off a house if you jes’ say giddap.”

Traylor’s birds, like his mammals, are the product of a life of careful observation. This turkey hen’s every muscle is tense as she snatches at a June bug. Traylor used the limits of the cardboard support to introduce a sense of urgency, with the insect seemingly about to escape off the edge of the board.

Traylor possessed an acute visual memory. Decades after he left the plantation, his drawings reanimated the farm animals he had known. Each of Traylor’s anatomically accurate creatures displays an individual personality. This animal’s large ears, dainty hooves, and tufted tail mark it as a mule or a hinny.

Traylor never learned to read or write, but sometime after he began drawing one of his friends taught him how to sign his work, as you see here.

Traylor energized this alert-looking pig by surrounding him with lively negative space formed by the repeating curves of his ears, tail, and legs. Traylor emphasized the massive quality of his body by crowding it against the top and right edges of the page and by juxtaposing its bulk against its dainty trotters. His sure command of form and line is seen in the subtle shapes of the pig’s snout, hooves, and hocks.

Constructions and Exciting Events
Shannon once asked what was going on in a particular drawing, and Traylor simply replied, “That’s an exciting event.” From this, his animated, multi-figure compositions have come to be known as “Exciting Events.” Many include constructions with organic or architectural elements, or combinations of both. Some of these puzzling objects probably have their origins in things from the plantation, such as a diving platform or a cotton screw, which was used to bale cotton. Some of them may have been inspired by Montgomery’s urban landscape near the streets where Traylor sat to draw. Whether or not this is true, these drawings remain mysterious and compelling in their ambiguity—a quality that encourages viewers to supply their own narratives. Those narratives have often diverged widely. In the same image, some viewers see wild revelry, while others see racial violence. The latter reading discounts a broad vein of humor that seems undeniable. Perhaps Traylor’s work is best understood as the final effort of a philosophical man—with a highly-developed sense of irony and the absurd—to transform his memories and impressions into physical form at the end of his long and eventful life.

Traylor typically drew on discarded cardboard. This is one of only two known examples of a Traylor drawing on wood. On the reverse is an unfinished drawing of a man holding an umbrella, executed in pencil and crayon.

Traylor’s ability to make do with available materials is a trait common to people who grow up on farms. In their youth, he and his friends built a platform on the Alabama River, near the plantation, where they would spend hot summer days drinking and diving into the water. This lively drawing seems to be one of several in which the artist depicted that scene.

Well into the nineteenth century, observers in the South wrote of seeing both male and female slaves carrying burdens on their heads—a practice they had brought from Africa, where it is still common today. Here Traylor imbued his memories of that practice with his characteristic playfulness and fascination with balance.

Traylor’s whimsy found an ideal outlet in the acrobatic antics of his figures. Whether in the form of a bent man perched precariously on tip-toe, a figure carrying objects stacked on his head, or a figure suspended in mid-air while supporting two birds and a little man, Traylor seems to have been preoccupied with balance. His highly developed sense of equilibrium must have been honed while he performed many of his tasks on the farm, from framing a building to balancing a load.

On the reverse of this drawing, Shannon recorded Traylor’s comments: “Bear/bulldog/cat! Mens going to shoot bear. Everybody runs.”

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