Bill Traylor, Untitled [Blue Man on Red Object], ca. 1939-1942. Poster paint and pencil on cardboard, 11 3/4 x 7 3/4 inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, purchase with funds from Mrs. Lindsey Hopkins, Jr., Edith G. and Philip A. Rhodes and the Members Guild, 1982.93
Using modest materials, Bill Traylor created a visual autobiography in which he recorded events from his past as well as his observations of life in Montgomery. Traylor offered his drawings for sale to passersby, but he sold or gave most of his work to Charles Shannon (1914–1996), a local artist who met Traylor in a chance encounter on a Montgomery sidewalk in 1939. Shannon was immediately engrossed in watching Traylor work and began bringing him poster paint, brushes, drawing pencils, and clean poster board; other admirers brought him crayons and compressed charcoal. Traylor shunned the clean paper, however, because he responded creatively to the irregular shapes of the pieces of cast-off cardboard he found on the street and the smudges, stains, and marks that were deposited on them.
Preserved by Shannon for approximately forty years, the drawings were reintroduced to an enthusiastic public in the late 1970s and now rank among the most important examples of self-taught art ever created.
Charles Shannon, Bill Traylor (frontal), ca. 1939.
Courtesy the Charles E. and Eugenia C. Shannon Trust.
Bill Traylor (1854?–1949) was born into slavery on a plantation in Alabama. After emancipation, he continued to live and work on the plantation until sometime before 1928, when he moved permanently to Montgomery. There he worked as a laborer and briefly in a shoe factory until he was physically unable to continue, then began receiving modest government assistance. Under the challenging conditions of Depression-era Alabama, Traylor survived on the streets in the then primarily black enclave of Monroe Avenue (now called Monroe Street). He slept first in the storage room of a funeral parlor, then in a shoe repair shop, and spent his days sitting on the sidewalks, creating the more than 1,200 drawings he is believed to have produced.
Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery.
This exhibition is supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and by the Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment.