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Bill Traylor 1939 Photo: Charles Shannon

Historical Perspective on Bill Traylor’s Drawings

By Debra L. Purden 

Bill Traylor was born in 1853 and lived in slavery and de facto slavery the majority of his life on a small plantation outside of Benton, Alabama. He lived through the Civil War, the 1st and 2nd Reconstruction, prohibition, Jim Crow laws, peonage laws, the two World Wars, the Great Migration north and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.  The story we know of Bill Traylor begins in 1939, when a young, idealistic artist “discovered” him, at the age of 85, sitting on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama with pencil and paper in hand. The young artist was fascinated by the drawings, and a unique relationship developed between the two men and it is through this friendship, Bill Traylor, born a slave on the plantation of George Hartwell Traylor, is known to the art world.


Bill Traylor drew stories about his life on discarded scraps of cardboard, a visual autobiography for anyone who would listen. Portraits of women and men who shopped in the neighborhood were common subjects, as were animals found on the farm where he once lived. No one can know what he was thinking when he drew figures teetering on top of platforms or falling off of houses, but verifying that the stories exist, recognizing familiar characters that are repeated, and exploring the rich narrative history that was recorded during Bill’s lifetime make it is possible to suggest a storyline.   

Phillip Gosse wrote a unique account of the life Bill Traylor was born into. The author, an English-born naturalist, was employed as a teacher on the same plantation where John Traylor, the owner of the artist’s mother and father, worked as an overseer.  Letters from Alabama [1] provides a rare commentary on plantation life in 1839.  A subject Bill Traylor was very familiar with, the possum hunt, is described in detail in the book and arguably could be the narrative for the artist’s drawings. A hunting party consisting of both master and slaves, set out for an evening of sport, as a family of possum had been feasting on a crop of ripe watermelon. The slaves scoured the field making noise to drive the possums to the dogs. The hunters lay in wait and shot as the possum retreat from the dogs. [2] Overall, Bill Traylor’s drawings describe the frenzy of a possum hunt:  people shouting, dogs treeing possums, and the plantation owner holding his rifle. According to Gosse, the game shot during the evening was given to the “Blackies,” which could account for the joyous pose of the woman with the umbrella in one of the drawings.

Bill Traylor Untitled (One-Legged Man with Airplane) 1939-1944

colored pencil and poster paint on cardboard15 1/2 x 9 3/8 in (39.37 x 23.81 cm) Collection of Siri Von Reis

Traylor’s work is rich in historical events. The one-legged man who points to an airplane flying overhead could be describing one of the planes from the Orville Wright Flying School. “Up one hundred feet above the dingy negro cabins and fields of brown stubble, the aero plane of Orville Wright soared Monday afternoon, west of Montgomery on the Washington Ferry Road” read a local newspaper. “More than a hundred people gasped as the gigantic kite sailed to the accompaniment of staccato explosions of its gasoline engine.” [3] Orville Wright tested his flying machine over the Montgomery cotton fields almost daily during the spring of 1910. The flying school was located on an old cotton plantation on the outskirts of town; it was the artist’s backyard the planes soared over.  Bill Traylor is not making up stories, he is telling stories.

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Camel and Goat) 1939-1944 pencil on cardboard 14 x 22 in (35.56 x 55.88 cm) Private Collection

In one absurd composition, a flat-footed camel faces a grinning lion in the woods of Alabama. This is not a normal southern landscape nor is a lion is not a common farm animal.  Remarkably, a lion escaped from the circus close to once a year during Bill’s lifetime.[4] It happened while traveling shows were moving from town to town, as the parade made its grand entrance down Main Street, and during the actual performances. The circus was a highly anticipated event in towns across America. An escaped lion, whatever the details, was a sensational story, a narrative told and retold at the Saturday market, after the church sermon, and at the dinner table.  It’s pure speculation the artist was influenced by local news but it is true a lion escaped during Bill’s tenure on the street [5]. In the drawing, Goat, Camel and Lion with Two Figures, the lion looks straight at the audience and is smiling, perhaps at his momentary freedom from his cage, while two characters, Bug-Eyed Man and the Old Man with the Cane, both familiar figures from other compositions, escape the wild beast by running off the page. Traylor enhances the story with local characters for the benefit of his audience; a prime example of how a master storyteller weaves fact with fiction. Bill observed the world around him, but only in his imagination would you find a flat-footed camel facing a grinning lion in the woods of Alabama.

Bill Traylor Untitled (Smoking Man with Figure Construction) 1939-1944

poster paint, crayon and pencil on cardboard 22 1/4 x 14 in (56.51 x 35.56 cm)

High Museum of Art, Georgia, Purchased with funds from Mrs.Lindsey Hopkins, Jr., Edith G. and Phillip A. Rhodes and theMembers Guild, 1982.114

The hip-looking character, bottle of alcohol on his knee, smoking a cigarette and wearing fancy shoes in the drawing Smoking Man with Figure Construction, is the fictional embodiment of Jim Bradley, a local man shot at the Goat Bottom Supper Club near Haynesville, the county seat of Lowndes County. This was during the time of Prohibition and Jim Bradley was the bootlegger. The WPA story, The Funeral [6], tells the tale of Bradley’s demise: “Jim was a high roller in the colored gang and was always in readiness with his dice, bottle on his hip and in good disposition.” [7]  Many of Bill's drawings are about drinking, and it’s reasonable to believe Bill was familiar with a similar character. The figures in Bill’s stories are often posed reaching for the bottle off the high shelf. The WPA writers collected stories about local personalities during Bill’s lifetime, and the county seat, Haynesville, was the location of both of Bill’s marriages, so again, it is his neighborhood that is being written about. “The drinking theme was to recur often. He apparently had seen a lot of it.” [8] The keg is repeated so often that it is a character in and of itself. Making moonshine was a small act of resistance. The year following the 18th Amendment, Alabama lead the country in the number of illegal stills. Despite efforts to keep the state bone dry, it was, in reality, quite wet [8].

Bill Traylor Untitled (Man) c.1939 poster paint and pencil on cardboard 13 3/4 x 8 13/16 in (34.92 x 22.22 cm) Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Charles and Eugenia Shannon, 1982.4.013

As the country readied itself for war, to address the potential shortages in low-paying agricultural jobs, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a temporary worker’s program named Bracero. “He just come to town” [9] written on the verso of the drawing Mexican Man, could refer to the influx of Mexican farm workers who arrived in Montgomery, via train, to work in the fields as a result of this program.  There are twenty-eight portraits of men and women in Bill’s oeuvre who are identified as Mexicans. The faces are stylized – as if he understands, before he begins, how he will construct the face of this foreign speaking stranger. With a simple line, he repeats the bushy eyebrows, big round eyes, the long nose and the mustache from face to face. As a group, the faces look directly at the audience and are left unpainted.  Many of the Mexican women are drawn without a mouth as if he can’t figure out how to balance a face looking forward, without the mustache.  Bill uses a straight edge to outline the shirts, pants, skirts and blouses; the head, arms, shoulders, shoes and the man’s curved hip are added to these outlines.  He carefully paints the clothes in multi-colored patterns keeping within the borders he has established.  There is nothing in these drawings that suggests they were left unfinished.  There must be a reason Bill decided to leave the faces of these immigrants unpainted in his compositions. Perhaps they are not strangers; based on the similar facial features and clothing worn by the characters, the same individuals are featured in different drawings.  The train station was a few blocks from where Bill spent his days and one can assume Bill was a friendly face, a fixture of the neighborhood.

Bill Traylor Untitled (Woman in Blue Skirt and Gloves)1939-1944 poster paint and pencil on cardboard12 1/4 x 7 1/4 in (31.11 x 18.41 cm) High Museum of Art, Georgia, Purchased with funds from Mrs.Lindsey Hopkins, Jr., Edith G. and Phillip A. Rhodes and the Members Guild, 1982.86

It would not be difficult to see a famous flying reindeer in Bill’s drawing Running Deer. Used as a promotional tool to bring shoppers into their store, Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all,” was introduced to popular culture in 1939 by the department store MontgomeryWard.[10] Santa distributed 2.4 million copies of the book during the first Christmas season alone, changing the existing myth of Santa’s team from eight reindeer to nine. There is no evidence Bill was aware of the Montgomery Ward’s book, yet it’s not hard to see a reindeer in this work, and it is easy to imagine a group of young boys crowding around Bill as he told the story of the reindeer who help Santa deliver toys on a foggy night. 

Unlike the multiple drawings of horses, dogs, cats, goats and pigs, Running Deer is a one-of-a kind-composition, the only work featuring a deer, let alone a flying one with antlers. It is entirely possible Bill was inspired by popular culture; it is equally possible he was just drawing a deer. In nature, all four legs of a running deer are, suspended in mid-air,  just as Bill illustrates. Was Bill looking at a Christmas card or was he illustrating a deer running in an open field? What Bill intended to communicate on the page is a matter of pure speculation.

Bill Traylor Running Deer 1939-1942 poster paint and pencil on cardboard 7 x 12.5 inches Private Collection

There is no evidence Bill was aware of the Montgomery Ward’s book, yet it’s not hard to see a reindeer in this work. Unlike the multiple drawings of horses, dogs, cats, goats and pigs, Running Deer is a one-of-a kind-composition, the only work featuring a deer, let alone a flying one with antlers. It is entirely possible Bill was inspired by popular culture; it is also possible he was just drawing a deer. In nature, all four legs of a running deer are, just as Bill illustrates, suspended in mid-air. Was Bill looking at a Christmas card or was he illustrating a deer running in an open field?  What Bill intended to communicate on the page is a matter of pure speculation.

Bill Traylor with his drawings, Courtesy Alabama State Council on the Arts, Photo: Horance Perry 1946

Bill’s sources are drawn from the streets of Montgomery and the memories he cherished. People, themes and events are repeated throughout the drawings he produced during his three-year residency on Monroe Street. Whimsical images from popular culture found a way into his complex compositions. Exciting events from his lifetime are retold from memory to the crowd that gathered around him. The history of Bill Traylor’s life is revealed in his drawings. Suggesting a source of inspiration for Bill’s stories, connecting a possible historic event, identifying repeated characters present a different approach to looking at his drawings.

There is a photograph of Bill standing near his doorway; his eyes are in shadow, the beginning of a smile can be seen on his face. The photograph shows a strong man, standing on two feet, with big shoulders and a big upper body. He’s leaning slightly against the brick wall, a top hat on his head not unlike the hats drawn on many of the

men in his compositions.  "As a man Traylor was always right with himself, and in his old age when every conceivable circumstances seem to work against him, he reached deep within to find his expression. The result is a body of drawings elegant and design, timeless and it's imagery, and imbued with humor and joy.” [11]


Bill Traylor  Photo: Charles Shannon

[1] Gosse, Philip Henry. Letters from Alabama: Chiefly Relating to Natural History. Edited by Gary R. Mullen and Taylor D. Littleton. 1859. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Daily Capital Journal, Thursday, August 24, 1939.

[4] For example, "Lion Flees Cage; Kills Passerby; Spreads Terror”, October 5, 1938, The Chicago Tribune.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The WPA Writers’ Project, Alabama Department of Archives and History.  Formed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Program in 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was developed to create jobs for the then record number of unemployed Americans suffering through the Great Depression. The concept of the WPA was to employ men and women on useful projects rather than just subsidizing their existence. The WPA was highly diversified, providing jobs for builders, plumbers, electricians, writers and artists. The Federal Art Project (FAP), a branch of the WPA, along with the Federal Writers’ Project and the Federal Theatre Project provided thousands of jobs for artists, writers and actors.

[7] Bill Traylor, His Life – His Life.  Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco, Remembering Bill Traylor: An interview with Charles Shannon, pamphlet advertising the upcoming publication of the book by Alfred A. Knopf, October, 1991

[8] Kelly Kazek, On Repeal Day: 7 places Alabamians bought illicit liquor during Prohibition, including speakeasy caves, underground tunnels, Alabama, December 5, 2014.

[9] Charles Shannon occasionally noted the comments Bill Traylor made on the back of the composition. "Man just come to town" is written on the verso of the drawing Man with Sachel, 1939.

[10] Jessica Pupovac, "Writing ‘Rudolph’: The Original Red-Nosed Manuscript," National Public Radio, December. 25, 2013

[11] Maridith Walker, "Traylor:  Freed Slave and Folk Artist", Alabama Heritage, Fall 1988, pg. 31

Charles Shannon interviewed by the author.

The exhibition Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor will be at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC from September 28, 2018 to March 17, 2019. This will be the first major retrospective of this artist, or of any artist who was born into slavery.

Debra Purden is a Bill Traylor historian working on the first catalogue raisonne of an outsider artist. Her exposer to the mysterious drawings was the 1988 exhibit organized by the Chicago Department of Fine Arts. She was the organizing force behind exhibition tour that traveled across American and Canada. It was the beginning of a twenty year

relationship working with one of the most significant private collections of Bill Traylor drawings. She created an archive of every known printed material that included Bill Traylor’s name for the collection and has done extensive research on the artist’s birthplace, Lowndes County, Alabama.

Five years ago she began gathering all known works of Bill Traylor into a database; to date, she has found over 1000 images. In this journey, characters and repeating stories began to emerge. The United States Census provided the information lacking in Bill’s history; WPA stories and local newspaper articles written created a picture the artist’s

life. The database she developed allows access to the corpus of artist output; it categorizes every color, pattern, and media the artist employed. She has studied, in depth, all original Traylor drawings available to her and recorded a description of the artist’s hand and the decisions he made. The stories and characters found in Bill Traylor’s drawings is the inspiration of her research.

Debra began her career at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago as a volunteer and was quickly hired full time by the curatorial team. Over the years, she has held positions at the Field Museum of Natural History, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center. She also worked as a private curator for many collectors in Chicago and relocated to New York four years ago to continue her studies on Bill Traylor.

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