NEW YORK, NY.-
This illuminating documentary explores the life of a unique American artist, a man with a remarkable and unlikely biography. Bill Traylor was born into slavery in 1853 on a cotton plantation in rural Alabama. After the Civil War, Traylor continued to farm the land as a sharecropper until the late 1920s. Aging and alone, he moved to Montgomery and worked odd jobs in the thriving segregated black neighborhood. A decade later, in his late 80s, Traylor became homeless and started to draw and paint, both memories from plantation days and scenes of a radically changing urban culture.
Having witnessed profound social and political change during a life spanning slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and the Great Migration, Traylor devised his own visual language to translate an oral culture into something original, powerful, and culturally rooted. He made well over a thousand drawings and paintings between 1939-1942. This colorful, strikingly modernist work eventually led him to be recognized as one of Americas greatest self-taught artists and the subject of a Smithsonian retrospective.
Using historical and cultural context, Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts
brings the spirit and mystery of Traylors incomparable art to life. Making dramatic and surprising use of tap dance and evocative period music, the film balances archival photographs and footage, insightful perspectives from his descendents, and Traylors striking drawings and paintings to reveal one of Americas most prominent artists to a wide audience.
The film reflects a tumultuous time of a forgotten world and its marginalized people, still reverberating today. A new lynching memorial and Legacy Museum from Bryan Stevensons Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) opened in Montgomery in 2018 just blocks from where Bill Traylor used to sit and work. 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 Americas most prominent artists, exhibited in museums and collections worldwide. In 2020, the City of Montgomery honored Bill Traylor by dedicating an historical marker at the corner of N. Lawrence and Monroe St. where Traylor used to work. The film is a starting point for educational components including the neglected period of Reconstruction in American history, African-American Southern history, along with cultural elements of music, dance, style and relationships. And the overarching theme of art and creativity as expression and documenting a life is profound.
Bill Traylor was born around 1853, on an Alabama cotton plantation owned by John Traylor, near Pleasant Hill, Alabama, in Dallas County, close to the Lowndes County line. Born into slavery, Traylor was about twelve years old when the Civil War ended, ending his legal servitude but not the basics of his way of life: he continued to live near his birthplace for another six decades, working as a farm laborer and contract farmer for the Traylor family. In the late 1920s, his rural livelihood ended by poor harvest and bad health, Traylor moved to Montgomery, where he worked odd jobs in the segregated black neighborhood. A decade later, in his late eighties, Traylor became homeless and started to draw, both past memories from plantation days and current scenes of a radically changing culture. Traylors life spanned slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and the Great Migrationwhich led most of his children away from the South. When he died in 1949, he left behind more than 1,000 drawings and paintings made on discarded cardboard.
In 1939, in Montgomery, a local artist named Charles Shannon saw Traylor drawing and recognized the self-taught artists remarkable gifts. Shannon, along with other members of a progressive artists coalition called the New South, gave Traylor paints and pencils and bought paintings and drawings from him over the next four years. Another forty years would pass before the art world took notice of Traylors enormous legacy, which comprises the largest known body of drawn and painted images made by an artist born into slavery. Traylors life and work compel us to examine the genius of an old and infirm black man making his art on a street corner in Montgomery, Alabama.
My introduction to artist Bill Traylor came with the 1982 watershed exhibit Black Folk Art in America at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. I had applied for a small grant to film the opening, and interview the featured living artists who attended. Traylors iconic art was used for the exhibits poster and still hangs in my office. Since encountering Bill Traylors art almost 40 years ago, I have long contemplated his work, wanting to unravel and dig deeper into his world. Today, Bill Traylor is one of the most celebrated self-taught artists, with one of the most remarkable and unlikely biographies.
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts strives to broaden our understanding of this period of transformation, a time when black people prospered as business professionals in Montgomery, in spite of living through the fear and volatility of Jim Crow South that impacted daily life. Traylor created his own visual language as a means to communicate and record the stories of his life. Traylors art is the sole body of work made by a black artist of his era to survive. He made well over a thousand drawings and paintings on discarded cardboard between 1939 and 1942.
Bill Traylor did not begin to draw until he was in his 80s; and when he did, his burst of creativity demonstrated a unique mastery of artistic technique. Without setting out to do so, he became a chronicler of his times