Let us go back to Alabama in 1853. A Black child born into slavery would grow up to witness the Civil War, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the rise of African American culture in the South and one day becomes one of the most influential artists of the 20th century that no one has ever heard. Bill Traylor.
Bill Traylor’s artwork is not flashy. What would one expect from an eighty-year-old self-taught artist who was for a period of time lived unhoused on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama? Traylor probably wins the award for most museum-goers ever to say, “I could paint that.” But they could not. Only Bill Traylor could.
His artwork is as historically significant as it is uniquely complex. All the hundreds of works that Bill Traylor created tell a story. In only a few short years of creating artwork likely never meant to be seen by anyone, which is why they are nearly all untitled, Bill Traylor is telling not only his story but the story of America. Particularly Black America. A capitalistic and cold, raging and racist, beautifully unforgiving and wild, ever-changing America. That was the 1940s.
A time, a place, a country that was not welcoming to Bill Traylor. One has to wonder if 2022 would be anymore welcoming.
Nevertheless, this country should be forever grateful that we had Bill Traylor and he continues to leave his mark on all of us.
Untitled (Owl) (1947) // Charcoal, tempera, and pencil on cardboard