Bill Traylor, Street Artist

Karen Kedmey
Sep 16, 2013 4:57AM

Like the now-legendary Delta bluesmen, whose music was brought to a wider audience by John and Alan Lomax, Bill Traylor did his own thing on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, producing drawings on scraps of cardboard, ensconced in his own community, until, more than 20 years after his death, his champion Charles Shannon managed to introduce these artistic gems to a public that was ready for them.

Now Traylor's work is thoroughly institutionalized. What he used to offer for pocket change to passersby on the bustling avenue that informed so many of his drawings, now sells for significant sums in climate controlled galleries. Museums and curators have made a place for him in Art History. The American Folk Art Museum, where two concurrent exhibitions of his work are on view, claims that his "drawings...rank among the most important examples of work by a self-taught artist ever created."

Traylor had no choice but to make art outside of any system and to teach himself how to do it. Born into slavery, he was freed into the Jim Crow South and died before the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest. It is easy to slip into mythologizing this man, who with no formal education or training made drawings which are delicate, whimsical, tender, and dark, with uncannily Modernist qualities. Such captivating, inspiring work was generated out of Traylor's own vision and ingenuity, for which he is rightly lauded. It was also generated out of the severely circumscribed life that was imposed upon him, in which, perhaps, he found freedom in the street and in the oddly shaped pieces of cardboard that he could fill with whatever he pleased.

Karen Kedmey