Bill Traylor, Southern Self-Taught Artist Born into Slavery

"Blue Cat” by Bill Traylor.

Self-Taught Artists – Outsider Art

Bill Traylor was an African-American artist born into slavery in the mid-1800’s, incredibly beginning his career as a self-taught artist at the age of 85.  Some of his most notable works of art were those that depicted his memories of plantation life in Montgomery, Alabama.

Born on April 1, 1854, Traylor’s family were slaves who continued to farm after emancipation.  When Traylor was 85 years old, he slept in a back room of a funeral home after moving to Montgomery from Benton in Lowndes County.  During daylight hours, Traylor would use supplies he had found such as cardboard pieces from shirt packaging and pencil stubs to create his impression of the people he saw passing by, and of plantation life as he remembered it from his youth.  He would then exhibit his drawings by hanging them on a fence for passers-by to see.


From that point until he was close to 90, Traylor would produce more than 1,200 drawings.  While his art was simplistic, mostly delineated geometric forms and figures, Traylor’s works of art never gained attention and popularity until nearly 30 years after his death.  While his drawings were exhibited at a show organized by Victor E. D’Amico in New York in 1942, none of Traylor’s artwork sold.  It was only in the late 1970’s when Traylor’s drawings became recognized and popular with the public as well as critics.  Charles Shannon, a painter who Traylor had met in his later years and who had purchased art supplies for Traylor, had kept his friend’s drawings over the years before unveiling them to museum and art dealers and professionals.

Some of the art work created by Traylor were done simply with pencil and “found” cardboard scraps, while others included poster paint, colored pencils, and crayons.  Much of his work is called “startlingly” modernistic; today, his work has become some of the most sought-after of that created by self-taught artists.

Traylor’s works include the Three Figure Construction in Black, untitled Man in High-singing Blue with Bag and Umbrella, untitled Spotted Cat, untitled “Exciting Event” Construction, and untitled Owl.  Amazingly considering the simplistic nature of his works and his elderly age when he really put his talent to use, Traylor’s art work is held in numerous public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, High Museum of Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Prior to his death at a nursing home in Montgomery in 1949, the artist had traveled to Washington D.C. in 1942 where he lived with his children during World War II until 1945, when he returned to Montgomery and lived on the street once again.  Ultimately, he was urged to  move in with a daughter in the area by relief workers.


Today you can own a piece of history, the painting above; Bill Traylor Woman Pointing, can be purchased for 110,000 here.

Bill Traylor’s story is one that is tragic in a way, considering he will never know the popularity of his work and impact of his talent.









"Woman with Bird, ca. 1940-1942" by Bill Traylor
“Woman with Bird, ca. 1940-1942” by Bill Traylor


"Man, Woman, ca. 1940–1942" by Bill Traylor, one of 60 rare drawings on view at the "Bill Traylor" exhibit at the Mingei International Museum.
“Man, Woman, ca. 1940–1942” by Bill Traylor, one of 60 rare drawings on view at the “Bill Traylor” exhibit at the Mingei International Museum.

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw

Today Bill Traylor is considered to be one of the most important self-taught American folk artists. Winner of Lee & Low’s New Voices Award Honor, It Jes’ Happened is a lively tribute to this man who has enriched the world with more than twelve hundred warm, energetic, and often humorous pictures.

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