photo manipulation & text by nacrowe
i only recently came to be aware of the early 20th century SELF-TAUGHT ARTIST BILL TRAYLOR of ALABAMA. born into SLAVERY, his family stayed and worked for their former owners as sharecroppers for 30 years after EMANCIPATION. little is known about his life other than he raised several children and had a few marriages throughout a long life sharecropping in the YELLOWHAMMER STATE. it was only in his 80s that he moved to MONTGOMERY and took up DRAWING, resourcefully repurposing whatever LEFTOVER MATERIALS he could find. in time he was a cultural fixture of the main thoroughfare of MONROE STREET with his deceptively SIMPLISTIC yet deeply EVOCATIVE FIGURE DRAWINGS of life both REAL and IMAGINED, past and present, ETHEREAL and disturbingly PALPABLE.
for decades after his passing in 1939 in OBSCURITY, TRAYLOR's work was likewise FORGOTTEN about and UNCELEBRATED. his work now is seen as a uniquely UNFILTERED link to a world long passed in which AMERICAN HISTORY saw one of its most CONSEQUENTIAL fulcrum points, i.e. the RECONSTRUCTION era and the uneven cultural and economic transition from SLAVERY in the AMERICAN SOUTH. a transition still in motion, with WIDE-RANGING consequences to present day. despite the dearth of PERTINENT information outside of state census records, the recent documentary BILL TRAYLOR: CHASING GHOSTS (BREAKAWAY FILMS NY, 2021) attempts to give voice to TRAYLOR by CONTEXTUALIZING him and his experiences within the greater tradition of AFRICAN-AMERICAN playwrights and poets of the era. its an INTRIGUING JUXTAPOSITION to see these scenes from NOTEWORTHY DRAMAS played out by actors with TRAYLOR's drawings interspersed in the mix. it provides a possible CONTEXT to material that otherwise is ironically almost OBTUSE in its DIRECTNESS, like witnessing an ANCIENT EGYPTIAN RELIEF PAINTING in a tomb out of CONTEXT.
it is quite something that these INDELIBLE IMAGES TRAYLOR created were done utilizing the most MODEST of materials, mostly pencils with BASIC colors on the backs of used cardboard print advertisements or discarded scrap paper. the vast majority of his work was done on MAKESHIFT canvases of IRREGULAR shapes, which he resourcefully and ingeniously incorporated into the COMPOSITION. part of the reason that his WORK hits the way it does is the fact that it is UNSCHOOLED and retains a certain PURITY of PERSPECTIVE for a REALITY and WAY OF LIFE that even at the time of its creation post-1939 was of a bygone era. it mixes COLLECTIVE and LIVING MEMORY with the HOPES and DREAMS of a time to come that as an old man TRAYLOR must have been acutely aware of MORTALITY and inability to experience said progress. there is also a bit of mystery regarding the SUBLIME and more than a little HOODOO ICONOGRAPHY thrown in the mix, which again informs his individual and the wider cultural PERSPECTIVE of his COMMUNITY. that something so PROFOUND is wrapped up in something seemingly so RUDIMENTARY is quite an achievement in its own right and he deserves his just praises, even if such are posthumous and decades after the fact. it is a testament to the QUALITY and INTENT of his WORK that TRAYLOR's ART resonates right now in our era with our amassed COLLECTIVE MEMORY and HISTORICAL and CULTURAL BAGGAGE. its one of the mysteries of ART that such teaches us anew as CONTEMPORARY conditions evolve and reveal themselves, presenting new CONTEXTS and opportunities for GROWTH. here is hoping that TRAYLOR is a permanent part of that continuing NARRATIVE and discussion regarding the AMERICAN EXPERIMENT, with all of its acknowledged PAINFUL SHORTCOMINGS and CELEBRATED virtues alike.
BILL TRAYLOR: CHASING GHOSTS is a COMPELLING documentary about a REVELATORY ARTIST that deserves further attention. i found it ESSENTIAL and is most definitely worth checking out.