Bill Traylor is the only known formerly enslaved individual to create a large body of painted and drawn work that still exists today, and for this his work holds undeniable historical value. However, Traylor created incredibly compelling work filled with abstract forms, complex compositions and vivid colors and this is why his work has been admired and collected for decades.
Although there is no evidence that Traylor began drawing before he was well into his 80s, he successfully documented his life and the experience of other African Americans of the era through his art. He commonly drew upon his urban surroundings and memories of plantation life for inspiration. He portrayed the people, events and objects that he encountered on the streets of Montgomery with an immediacy and vitality that gives viewers a sense of what daily life was like in the City. Traylor spent his early life on a plantation, first as a slave and later as a laborer, and he utilized these memories in his work as well, depicting the wide array of animals that he encountered during his life. Throughout his decade or so of working, Traylor created active and vibrant scenes that are as visually remarkable as they are historically relevant.
"Traylor's work is unique in media, size, scope, place and era. Aside from the historical and cultural ways in which his art is vitally important, it is also endlessly astonishing, bold and enigmatic."
-Leslie Umberger, Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum
In 1939, Charles Shannon, a young artist, encountered the 85-year-old Bill Traylor, seated with a pencil in his hand, in front of a blacksmith shop in Montgomery, Alabama. Intrigued, Shannon befriended Traylor and provided him with encouragement and art supplies. Shannon also purchased approximately 1200 works from Traylor, for very modest prices. Shannon preserved and promoted these works for 60 years and they became the basis of Traylor’s legacy today. Betty Cuningham Gallery is the exclusive representative of the Charles E. and Eugenia C. Shannon Trust and all of the works offered below come directly from the Trust.
"Traylor was a natural stylist and a born storyteller who pushed images of the life around him toward abstraction with no loss of vivacity. At once modern and archaic, his art offers proof of Jung’s collective unconscious but also of an indelible individual talent."
-Roberta Smith, The New York Times
The Resettlement Administration was a relief agency created in the 1930s to provide help to tenant farmers, migrant workers, sharecroppers and impoverished farmers. It later became part of the Farm Security Administration. In addition to the Resettlement Administration, Traylor created works memorializing the Work Projects Administration and National Recovery Administration, which both include figures of men at work as well as the acronym.
Without access to professional drawing paper, Traylor used cardboard that he found on the streets of Montgomery, often working on the reverse of advertisements from the 1930s and 1940s. It was common for the cardboard to be stained or otherwise marred. Traylor regularly incorporated these marks into his composition. For example, Traylor has regularly portrayed a bird’s beak at the edge of a small hole, suggesting that the bird’s beak had pecked the cardboard and was responsible for creating the mark. In this depiction of a sow, Traylor used the existing mark on the paper as an opportunity to depict the animal in a more complicated position, as if she was heading uphill.
With no formal art education, Traylor taught himself to draw. In many of his early works, Traylor used tools and found objects for their shapes, tracing them to form the base of animals or the skirts of ladies, among others things. In Greyhound, a sharp rectangular outline is clearly visible in the body of the dog. In an effort to portray the animal more realistically, Traylor next softened the sharp edges of the rectangle by adding marks on top of the base shape, resulting in a curvaceous shape more like that of a greyhound.
Opening Title Photo: Courtesy of the Alabama Council on the Arts, Photo by Horace Perry
Leslie Umberger Quote: Leslie Umberger, Stephanie Stebich and Kerry James Marshall, Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 2018) p32.
Roberta Smith Quote: Roberta Smith, “The Shape of the World Passing Before His Eyes: Bill Traylor Finally Gets a Spotlight in New York,” The New York Times, July 4, 2013, C19.