The Little-Known Story of Bill Traylor, One of America's Most Important Artists of the 20th Century

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Bill Traylor’s extraordinary life story is American history. The self-taught artist began his unique drawings in his 80s and produced over 1,200 works. His drawings depicted memories from the plantation and the Black Southern experience throughout the 20th century.

Bill was born into slavery in Alabama, lived through the Civil War, the Reconstruction period, Jim Crow, the Great Migration and World War I and II. In his later years, he was homeless, suffered a leg amputation and died penniless at the age of 96 in Montgomery. Traylor lived to see one local exhibition of his work in 1940. However, none of his pieces sold, and his work was then stored away for decades. Earlier this year, one of his paintings sold for almost $300,000.

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His life is the subject of a newly released documentary titled Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts. The film also sheds light on his family’s long struggle to gain ownership over his work. The Root spoke to the film’s director, Jeffrey Wolf, and executive producer Sam Pollard. Pollard was also the director of HBO’s recent film Black Art: In the Absence of Light.

“Being a Southern Black man in the South and to live that long is a major accomplishment because, as we all know, it was treacherous to be a Black man in the South in that period,” Pollard said. “You’re getting another perspective in terms of the richness and the complexity of living in the South. And that’s why Traylor has become such an important figure.”