Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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  • Bill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) is regarded today as one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century. A black man born into slavery in Alabama, he 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. Listen to Leslie Umberger, curator for Folk and Self-Taught Art, talk about "Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    LESLIE UMBERGER: Bill Traylor was an Alabama artist. He created a large body of painted and drawn work in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He was born in 1853 and died in 1949, so his life was really divided almost equally between two centuries. When Traylor died, he left the only significant body of painted and drawn work made by a person born into slavery. These images tell an incredibly personal story, but they also reveal the larger story of America.

    The title “Between Worlds” is looking at this very long life that Traylor lived between the 19th century and the 20th century. He lived between slavery and freedom, between an old plantation culture and this evolving African American world in the south. Most of all, between black and white cultures. He was always caught between all of those things and in the imagery when you look carefully you see him always navigating all of these things.

    There are 155 paintings and drawings in this exhibition. Traylor’s early drawings were done largely in pencil. He drew the people and animals that he knew, and these first works really convey Traylor’s desire to leave a record of himself and his life. Traylor also used charcoal and poster paint and some other materials. He painted mostly on pieces of used cardboard that he found around the neighborhood. These were things like candy box tops and window advertisements. Traylor really made his art at a time and in a place that was very risky for an African American with a point of view. But through abstraction, symbolism, and fable-like allegories he addressed topics from literacy to lynching.

    I think that visitors to the exhibition will have a sense that this is a very important American artist, but one maybe they haven’t heard of. This story hasn’t been told very widely, but these artists that maybe had softer voices are equally important in this big story of who we are as a people. I think it’s a very empowering body of work because what Traylor did in my mind is that he really stood up and testified that he was a person of worth and that he had a story worth telling and he was worth remembering.
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