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Bill Traylor

Pleasant Hill, Alabama 1853

Montgomery, Alabama 1949


Bill Traylor is among the most celebrated self-taught artists in America. His drawn and painted imagery stands at the crossroads of multiple worlds: black and white, rural and urban, old and new. Born into slavery, he saw enormous political and social change, from Reconstruction and Jim Crow through the Great Migration; his work foreshadowed issues that would surface during the Civil Rights era and offers a rare perspective on the story of America.

Traylor was born around 1853 on an Alabama cotton plantation near Pleasant Hill, Alabama, in Dallas County, close to the Lowndes County line. He was about twelve years old when the Civil War ended and he continued to work as a farm laborer near his birthplace for another six decades. In the late 1920s, Traylor moved to segregated Montgomery where he lived for the rest of his life, increasingly disabled and eventually homeless. When he was in his eighties, Traylor began to draw and paint, depicting his memories of plantation life as well as newly visible elements of African American culture in an urban setting. When he died in 1949 he left behind more than 1,000 drawings and paintings made on discarded cardboard.

In 1939, a white artist named Charles Shannon saw Traylor drawing and recognized the importance of the art he was making. Shannon, along with other members of a progressive artist's coalition called the New South, gave Traylor paints and pencils and bought paintings and drawings from him over the next four years. Another forty years would pass before the art world took notice of Traylor's enormous legacy, which comprises the largest known body of drawn and painted images made by an artist born into slavery.

Leslie Umberger
Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art