Bill Traylor was born in 1854 in Benton Alabama; he spent the majority of his life on a plantation as a sharecropper. He had no formal education and his family history is somewhat of a mystery as well. From what we know from Charles Shannon, who met Traylor on Monroe street while attending college in the South. Traylor created most of his work from a sidewalk, using pencil, sometimes charcoal and watercolor on cardboard. Most of the material was provided by Shannon who was very conscious in not influencing Traylor too much. With little material, Traylor depicted the Diaspora of blacks and their struggles during the post slavery south. His work was also extensively inspired by cosmology and voodoo art, believing heavily in that dreams carried messages from distant relatives.
It was not until fifty years later did Traylor, with the help of Charles Shannon’s art world connections, did he become recognized as a great American painter. Charles Shannon, a graduate of the Cleveland School of Art and founder of New South Gallery, is responsible for collecting, cataloging and naming over one thousand original Traylor pieces. Due to the sudden death of Traylor, and Charles’ lack of knowledge when it came to interpreting Traylor’s work, little is really concrete about Traylor’s ideas and inspiration behind each piece. Although there are some constant themes in Traylor’s work, like Man versus Mule, there is no doubt that his creativity stems from his experience laboring a huge plantation in the heart of the racist south. Much of Traylor’s popularity came with his death, as many art enthusiasts around the states became interested in his work. Traylor’s first show was presented by the Schaumburg Center in 1982, which today is based in Harlem, New York.
Traylor’s peculiar depictions of life on the plantations translates to reshaping images of “man versus mule,” and other interesting ways of personifying wild boars, similar to the visuals in the award-winning 2012 Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals’ Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both worlds present the struggle of Blacks with deteriorating and harsh living conditions. Yet both protagonists, if you will—like Hush Puppy and Traylor, find comfort in over exaggerated creatures. Like in the film, six-year old Hush Puppy finds comfort in these huge wild boars that are usually portrayed as scary and violent in many children’s novels and cartoons. In comparison to Traylor’s paintings and drawings, he too finds comfort in wild boars being giant heroes in the most unforeseen conditions- like the post-slavery south and being an sharecropper on a plantation. Although, Beasts of the Southern Wild depicts the struggles of modern day blacks and unconventional family life in a very modern technological way, what is consistent between Traylor and Hush Puppy’s imaginations are portraying huge creatures as heroes that have been stereotypical labeled the ugly, and illegitimate in many American fairy tales. They are gentle, emotion-filled creatures that connect with suffering and resilient people.
Furthermore, a lot of African-American folktales are full of life, wisdom and draw on earth and nature to affirm the morals of a community of people who are/were accumulatively ostracized and disadvantaged to mainstream culture and society.
Much can be said about Bill Traylor’s childlike and innocent paintings that, at first glance, can be dismissed as irrelevant to 20th century American Art. The most valuable player, of course, is Shannon and his encouragement and belief that these paintings were significant even when Traylor didn’t even know himself. I love the juxtaposition of his work with the rest of the exhibit, but also the similarities of a lot of the self-taught artists are also display.
I spent the afternoon before the annual Winter Gala researching Bill Traylor (largely thanks to a book I received from Prestel Publishing a few months ago), just one of the few artists apart of "Great and Mighty Things": Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection. The Bonovitz’ were generous enough to lend pieces from their personal collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so it was only right that I get ready for the gala by becoming more aware of this self-taught African-American artist who has haphazardly contributed to 20th century American History.
At the Main gallery of the PMA, you will find a plethora of Bill Traylor’s abstract work, as well as other artists. I couldn’t help to feel excited to attend the opening exhibit celebrated with a crowd of over 200 Young Friends members. Yes, this was definitely a case of socialites taking over the parkway, again, but this time, for a great cause. To celebrate the self-taught artists in our history that have substantially contributed to recording the early workings of culture as it was back then and choosing wisely just how to preserve it now.
Great and Mighty Things": Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection is on display now through June 9 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.