Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

September 28, 2018 – March 17, 2019

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, NW)

Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor is first retrospective ever organized for an artist born into slavery, and the most comprehensive look at Bill Traylor’s work to date.

Bill Traylor is one of the most celebrated American self-taught artists. His drawn and painted imagery embodies the crossroads of multiple worlds: black and white, rural and urban, old and new. His life—which spanned slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Great Migration and foreshadowed the era of Civil Rights—offers a rare perspective to the larger story of America.

Traylor was born into slavery around 1853-54 on an Alabama cotton plantation near the town of Benton. He was around twelve when the Civil War ended, but he remained in service as a sharecropper for most of his life. Around 1930, Traylor moved to segregated Montgomery, where he lived the rest of his life, predominantly homeless and increasingly disabled. In his eighties, Traylor began to draw and paint—a life of plantation memories and a rising world of African American culture. He died in 1949 and left behind more than 1,000 drawings and paintings on discarded cardboard boxes and advertising cards.

Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor is the first retrospective ever organized for an artist born into slavery and the most comprehensive look at Traylor’s work to date. The exhibition, for the first time, will carefully assess Traylor’s stylistic development and interpret his scenes as ongoing narratives rather than isolated events. His layered messages blended common imagery with arcane symbolism and used ambiguity as a means to explore themes of freedom and struggle in the Jim Crow South. His work balances narration and abstraction and reflects both a personal vision and the black culture of his time.

The exhibition is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art. The museum’s collection includes twelve works by Traylor, six recently acquired, which will be featured in the exhibition. A major book, written by Umberger, is forthcoming. The Smithsonian American Art Museum will be the sole venue for the exhibition.


This exhibition is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Faye and Robert Davidson, Josh Feldstein, the Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. American Folk Art Fund, Just Folk/Marcy Carsey and Susan Baerwald, the Morton Neumann Family Foundation, Judy A. Saslow, and Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth.

Untitled - 2016.14.5 - 129305

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog), ca. 1939 - 1942