Born enslaved in Alabama, Bill Traylor was an eyewitness to history: the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, and the steady rise of African American urban culture in the South. Traylor would not live to see the civil rights movement, but he was among those who laid its foundation.
An Eyewitness to History
In the late 1920s, Bill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) left one lifetime behind and embarked on another. After seven decades of farm labor, his tethers to plantation life had all fallen away, so he traveled, alone, into the cityscape of segregated Montgomery. Traylor would spend the next two decades in Montgomery, looking back at a hard, haunting agrarian past; looking ahead at a rapidly evolving world in the city.
Yellow Chicken (1939-1940) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Traylor became an artist at a time and in a place where personal expression for black Americans posed great risk. Yet in his final decade, he took up pencil and paintbrush and attested to own his existence and point of view. In just a few years, Traylor put down a lifetime of memories, dreams, stories, and scenes in over a thousand works of art.
Untitled (Woman with Umbrella and Man on Crutch) (1939) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Traylor’s compelling imagery charts the crossroads of radically different worlds—rural and urban, black and white, old and new—and reveals how one man’s visual record of African American life gives larger meaning to the story of his nation.
Self-Portrait (1939/1940) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
It is uncertain when Bill Traylor began drawing, but his earliest known works—rudimentary drawings done in pencil—were made in early 1939, when he was around eighty-six. After decades of farm labor, the aged Traylor was spending days drawing near a blacksmith shop and lodging nightly at a funeral home in the segregated black business district of Montgomery. In these first drawings, Traylor takes stock of the world around him, documenting hand tools, objects, animals, and people, and learning how to organize pictures as records and tell stories.
Blacksmith Shop (1939/1940) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Mother with Child (1939) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Traylor’s dogs convey a wide range of character types, from docile pets to lethal foes. His many depictions of fighting hounds suggest an ongoing desire to capture raw animal ferocity and the intense dynamic of mortal conflict. On plantations, canines were common farming and hunting aides, but they were also trained to hunt and kill humans. From the time of slavery, through the decades of Jim Crow segregation and into the present, dogs have been an effective tool for instilling terror. Often portraying the embattled beasts in different colors, Traylor subtly conveyed the notion of an interracial battle.
Man and Large Dog (On reverse: Man and Woman) (1939/1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Traylor adeptly used animals as allegorical stand-ins for people. A diminished white man leading a giant, raging black dog may subtly refer to the paradox of slavery: a strong and mighty being, held in bondage through the powers of social agency and wealth. Traylor’s paintings of single canines—hulking animals painted in or set against blazing reds—convey the enormity of emotions, including fear, rage, and torment, feelings that African Americans had to outwardly suppress in segregated society.
Untitled (Dog Fight with Writing) (1939/1940) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Songs and stories have always been effective vehicles for communication. These modes carry tradition and history, but they may also transmit subversive allegories disguised as innocent animal tales. Some of Traylor’s earliest images narrate pursuit: the chaser and the chased. In the segregated South, overt depictions of racial confrontation would have been perilous for an African American man, yet Traylor shows an innate understanding of letting animals stand in for people. Rabbit is an iconic character in folklore—meek, but also clever and fast. For the enslaved and generations thereafter, Rabbit was heroic for outwitting his oppressors and surviving against the odds. Traylor often drew rabbits flying through the air, escaping, or simply running free. Sometimes their legs appear uncannily human-like, as if Traylor wanted to only thinly disguise its resemblance to a running man.
Rabbit (1940/1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Untitled (1939-1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Violence is pervasive in Traylor’s art. People wield hatchets, clubs, or guns, they fall from heights, runfrom dogs, and flee into trees; sometimes they hang, lifeless. His images draw on the personal but describe an environment rife with peril and challenge. Lowndes County, Alabama, where Traylor lived and worked for much of his life, was the heart of the Jim Crow South, where racial persecution was commonplace.
Traylor often set his visual stories around a tree. These works overtly adhered to a hunting theme, a “possum hunt” for example. Yet Traylor was skilled at multilevel narratives. Seen another way, these images hint at darker stories, in which humans are both the hunters and the hunted.
Figures and Construction with Cat (1939/1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Memories & Mysteries
Traylor’s drawings rarely have one clear meaning, yet his ability to convey a mood of unease was masterful. He adroitly captured emotion and encounter through pose, gaze, color, and a brilliant use of negative space that describes motion and force; his characters jump, point, tumble, and run; predators and prey stand locked in confrontation. Traylor’s creatures and characters enact wordless, open-ended stories of operatic drama. Birds squawk and take flight; serpents poise to strike, owls shriek. Wielded weapons, pointing fingers, and arcane hash marks capture our attention but keep their secrets.
Untitled (Event with Man in Blue and Snake) (1939) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Man with Yoke (1939/1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Abstraction & Distinctive Works
Traylor is known for revisiting favored themes, but the individual works are nevertheless unique. He
repeatedly explored the concept of a little man hassling or provoking a larger one to evoke the idea of
personal choices, perhaps never more clearly than in Man with Yoke. The central figure’s load appears to
be a moral one. A small being atop either shoulder reveals his battle. The figure on the left holds a bottle
(vice), while the one on the right preaches righteousness. Traylor’s “little man”—the troublemaker—shows up in a number of works, always prodding and pushing people into situations in which they ought
not to be.
Untitled (Man Carrying Dog on Object) (1939/1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Untitled (Blue Man on Red Object) (1939/1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Dressed to the Nines
Men in fancy suits, tailcoats, and tall hats, accessorized with bags, canes, umbrellas, and cigars, are a central enigma in Traylor’s body of work. These striking figures have been explored variously as the personifications of Death, the Undertaker, and the Conjure Doctor—all powerful roles that Traylor’s characters may step in and out of.
Untitled (Man in Blue and Brown) (1940/1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Traylor had a predilection for blue. The blue pencils and paints available to him varied, but the prevailing favorite was an intense cobalt poster paint, so vibrant it radiates in any light. Traylor’s men in blue appear throughout his larger body of work, but they could also comprise a category unto themselves. These characters are exceptional in various ways, whether through their ability to skirt danger or command attention. In African American culture the color blue is associated with protection—a color that could shield one from harm or malevolent spirits.
Folk Magic, Dreams & Transformation
A number of Traylor’s drawings depict disembodied legs kicking about. The upended, boot-like feet often resemble a cast-iron cobbler’s anvil, which would have been among the tools Traylor used or saw regularly in the late 1920s while working at a shoe-repair shop or in 1940 when he was staying nights at another cobbler’s business. The spare forms create dynamic and elegant silhouettes, but they also transform the shape of a human foot into something threatening, hammer-like, and potentially cruel—objects that might propel dark dreams for one sleeping among their shadowy shapes.
Leg Forms with Bird (1939/1940) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Untitled (Basket, Man, and Owl) (1939) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Drinkers & Dancers
Traylor’s creatures—both animals and people—sometimes exude an untamed or feral intensity. In Untitled (Man, Woman, and Dog), a couple dances with wild abandon. Although Traylor didn’t speak specifically about after-hours houses or “jook” joints—underground spots for drinking, gambling, and dancing—they surely existed all around him. In the 1930s the uninhibited dance styles that became popular with younger African Americans were held in mixed regard by community elders, who worried they were tools of the devil. Yet blues music encouraged ethnic solidarity and a bawdy, rebellious culture that utilized pleasure as an act of resistance, particularly for those born after Emancipation.
Untitled (Man, Woman, and Dog) (1939) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Red Man (1939-1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
House (1941) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Traylor often painted on discarded cardboard window advertisements or box tops. This large display card
once advertised the Philco Mystery Control, a wireless remote invented for radios in 1939. Here, similar
imagery and story lines seen in Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dogs) coalesce into a
single tightly organized scene. The characters may be the same, but Traylor distilled them into loosely
painted, stylized figures that deliver an explosive energy; details give way to fluid abstraction.
Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog) (1939) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Traylor’s house scenes likely recall his seven decades of plantation life. These pictures often show a ladder leading from the yard to the roof—a rural custom in case of fire. For Traylor, ladders also served a storytelling function—carrying the viewer’s gaze upward from the yard to the housetop, where high intrigue often plays out. This premise captured Traylor’s artistic development better than any other thematic vein, evolving from hesitant explorations, to carefully drawn works, to fluid, improvisational paintings that pack a powerful visual punch.
Untitled (Radio) (1940-1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
In his somber silhouettes, Traylor compressed a universe of volume and feeling into the flattest of shapes. He effectively balanced positive and negative space, and reduced physicality and mood into stark, saturated images that distill subjects into succinct versions of their worldly forms. Inherently a minimalist with color, Traylor often rendered his images in solid tones of blue, brown, red, even yellow. But he turned most often to black for elegant translations that seem to perfectly fix a shadow.
Untitled (Seated Woman) (1940/1942) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
House (1941) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
Untitled (Mule) (1939) by Bill TraylorSmithsonian American Art Museum
This online gallery features selected artworks from the exhibition "Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor," on view from September 28, 2018 to March 17, 2019 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
To learn more about Bill Traylor's life and art, refer to the monograph of the same title by Leslie Umberger, with introduction by artist Kerry James Marshall.
"Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor" is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from ART MENTOR FOUNDATION LUCERNE, Elizabeth Broun, Faye and Robert Davidson, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Josh Feldstein, Jocelin Hamblett, the Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. American Folk Art Fund, Just Folk/Marcy Carsey and Susan Baerwald, Lucas Kaempfer Foundation, Marianne and Sheldon B. Lubar, Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund, the Morton Neumann Family Foundation, Douglas O. Robson in honor of Margaret Z. Robson, Jeanne Ruddy and Victor Keen, Judy A. Saslow, and Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth.