Art

Jeffrey Wolf celebrates works of Bill Traylor, in new doc: survivor of slavery who became an artist in mid-80s

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is an inventive feature documentary capturing the vivid life of Bill Traylor, who in his late 80s, living homeless on the street in the thriving segregated black neighborhood of Montgomery, produced a body of extraordinary art. Born into slavery in 1853 on a cotton plantation in rural Alabama, Traylor witnessed profound social and political change during his life spanning slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and the Great Migration. In his later years, Traylor poured out those memories from within, drawing and painting over 1,000 pieces of art from 1939-42. Using historic and cultural context, the film is designed to bring the spirit and mystery of Traylor’s incomparable art to life. The transcendent surprise is while Traylor kept to himself leading an unassuming life, he was nurturing a remarkable creative gift that would not be expressed for decades. Tap dance, evocative period and original music, and dramatic readings are used in surprising ways in the film, balanced with insightful perspectives from Traylor family members and expert interviews. Traylor devised his own visual language to record the stories of his life, translating an oral culture into something unique, powerful, and culturally rooted. The film reflects a tumultuous time of a forgotten world and its marginalized people, still reverberating today.

A new lynching memorial and Legacy Museum recently opened in Montgomery just blocks from where Bill Traylor used to sit and work. Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts explores the life of a unique American artist, a man with a remarkable and unlikely biography. The film is a compelling human narrative that gives voice to a man who endures a long life of extreme hardships during an era of legalized racial indignities, to become one of America’s most prominent artists, exhibited in museums and collections worldwide

Image B&W; Courtesy of Kino Lorber/Jean and George Lewis /Caroline Cargo Folk Art Collection

What do we know about Bill Traylor

The visual artwork of native Alabamian Bill Traylor (1854-1949) is as distinctive and original as was his art studio. Traylor is one of a number of famous artists throughout history who did not attend formal art classes. His works reflect his surroundings in bold imagery and striking colors and often feature human figures and animals.

Main image: Lowndes County native Bill Traylor (1854-1949) was a self-taught artist whose paintings are held in collections around the world. His works are populated with imagery from his life and his imagination, including Alabama fauna, buildings, and fantastical beasts.Courtesy of the Alabama State Council on the Arts


Bill Traylor was born sometime in 1854 to Sally and Bill Traylor, enslaved workers on a plantation in Lowndes County. Having no means to gain a formal education, Traylor earned his living by sharecropping on a plantation in Montgomery County.
Exciting Events ca. 1939

Bill Traylor (American, 1854-1949)
Exciting Events, ca. 1939
Pencil on cardboard
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama
Courtesy of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

Bill Traylor (American, 1854-1949)Exciting Events, ca. 1939 Pencil on cardboardMontgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, AlabamaCourtesy of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts


He was married to Lorisa Dunklin, and the couple had at least nine children, although few records of his life and family at this time exist. By 1933, Traylor was working in a shoe factory in Montgomery. Although little record of when Traylor began painting and drawing has been found, documentation suggests that he set up his studio in 1939 on a sidewalk on Lawrence Street in Montgomery. His work soon attracted the attention of artist Charles Shannon, one of the founders of the New South Gallery, a cooperative community of artists. The following year, the gallery mounted a showing of Traylor’s drawings. In 1941, his work was shown at the Fieldston School in New York City. In 1942, Traylor left Alabama to live with his children in Detroit during World War II, returning to Montgomery after the war. In 1946, journalist Allen Rankin authored a story about him, “He Lost 10,000 Years,” that was published in Collier’s Magazine in 1946. Bill Traylor died in Montgomery on October 23, 1949.
The Art of Bill Traylor

Figures, Construction ca. 1940-42

Bill Traylor (American, 1854-1949)Figures, Construction, ca. 1940-42Watercolor, pencil on cardboardMontgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, AlabamaCourtesy of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts


Traylor created most of his more than 1,000 drawings with pencil (although he did use charcoal on occasion) on thin cardboard; he also used watercolors. His images are very distinctive. They tend to be bold, flat, and very expressive and take the form of humans, animals, fantastical creatures, and architectural forms that do not overlap on the picture plane. Traylor drew from what he saw as an adult and remembered from his earlier life experiences for his subjects: a dog and cat fighting, people constructing a building, a woman with a bird, a man and a woman. His compositions are sophisticated, using the positive space (the figures) and the negative space (the background) to convey movement, emotion, physical location, and narrative. Traylor’s works are held in important public and private collections, and he is recognized as an important twentieth-century American artist.

Director: Jeffrey Wolf
Screenwriter: Fred Barron
Producers: Jeffrey Wolf, Daphne McWilliams, Jeany Nisenholz-Wolf, Fred Barron
Executive Producer: Samuel D. Pollard
Director of photography: Henry Adebonojo
Editor: Keith Reamer
Composer: David Mansfield

US release dates June 8. Check back for details for UK and other territories.

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