Artist Profile – Bill Traylor

Bill Traylor

c. 1854–1949, lived and worked in Montgomery, Alabama

Spotted Bull

Bill Traylor / Spotted Bull / Poster paint on cardboard / Private Collection

Bill Traylor was born into slavery sometime between 1852 and 1856 on the plantation of George Hartwell Traylor, near Benton, Alabama. He received no formal education, and after his emancipation he chose to remain on the Traylors’ land as a farm hand with his wife and twenty-two children. By the mid-1930s he had moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he spent nights in the storage room of a funeral parlor (and later a shoe repair shop) and days drawing in front of a pool hall or under a shed roof in Montgomery’s downtown street market. His art was first noticed in 1939, when Traylor was eighty-five. “It just come to me,” he told a reporter of his delineated geometric forms and figures, which he created using a pencil and a straight-edge and filled in with colored poster paint provided by Charles Shannon, a local artist, friend, and champion of his work. Traylor drew on whatever paper or cardboard he could find, incorporating the shape and attributes of the material into his compositions. Between 1939 and 1942, he produced approximately 1,500 works. In 1942, World War II forced him to travel north to live with his children in Washington, D.C., and Detroit. He returned to Montgomery in 1947, and died in 1949.

A trailer for the upcoming film Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts, by Breakaway Films.

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Traylor Edmondson NYT April 2005
Traylor NYT Feb 1997
Traylor NYT Oct 1993

Traylor Press Release High Museum 2012

Artist’s Work