During his life, Traylor’s work received little to no recognition, save for the interest of painter Charles Shannon. The leader of New South, a collective and gallery made up of a group of progressive white artists in Montgomery, Alabama, Shannon provided the once-homeless Traylor with money and materials, and collected the vast majority of Traylor works that survive today. Cut short by World War II and then Traylor’s death in 1949, this percolating interest did not re-emerge until the late 1970s, when Shannon and his wife began to officially catalog the late artist’s work. Thanks to their efforts, in 1979, R.H. Oosterom, Inc., in New York City mounted the exhibition “Bill Traylor 1854–1974, Works on Paper,” which led to the first institutional acquisition of Traylor’s work, by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Around the same time, galleries like Philadelphia’s Janet Fleisher Gallery (now known as Fleisher Ollman Gallery) and Chicago’s Carl Hammer Gallery began to dedicate themselves to contemporary folk and self-taught artists. “One of my primary interests when I was in college was Surrealism,” said John Ollman, owner of Fleisher Ollman Gallery, in a recent phone interview. “To me, a lot of the 20th century self-taught art was a purist form of the Surrealist manifesto.” Ollman was first introduced to Traylor’s work when a friend from Chicago sent him a box of the artist’s drawings. Ollman fell in love immediately, purchasing one for his personal collection; at the time, Traylor’s works sold for figures between $100 and $175. “I was luckily able to buy two drawings back in the day; now I can’t afford the drawings I own,” Ollman mused.