Peculiarly, the story of Bill Traylor is both intensely local and transnational. Born into slavery in 1854, Traylor spent most of his life in the nearly unknown town of Benton, Alabama, just outside of Montgomery. As a self-taught artist, he moved to the state capital in 1935 when he was about eighty-one years old, beginning a more prominent career when he was discovered by painter Charles Shannon in 1939.
The subjects of Traylor’s work might seem elementary, or at best, rustic—his early work was done on cardboard as he worked on the streets, depicting interactions of humans, animals, and the tools of agriculture from his decades of rural life. And yet, having started his career so late, very little of Traylor’s work was recognized during his lifetime. Even today, we might speculate that he hardly, if ever, thought of himself of an artist. Nevertheless, Deep Blues: Bill Traylor 1854-1949, edited by Josef Helfenstein and Roman Kurzmeyer, was the first presentation of Traylor’s life and work, as well as the artistic, social, and historical context in which he lived, when the volume was published in 1999 alongside an exhibition of his work at the Robert Hull Fleming Museum in Vermont. Featuring over 75 black and white images and 60 color plates of Traylor’s work, the volume presents not only the compelling drawings that made Traylor a nearly mythical figure in American folk art but also a series of photographs of Traylor and his milieu that captures Montgomery and the moment when Traylor was beginning to draw.
Whether Traylor saw himself as an artist seems irrelevant to the writing about his work that he has inspired. As Kurzmeyer notes of Traylor’s career shortly after meeting Shannon:
Traylor now drew scenes of carousing as well as men, women, and children energetically teasing one another or occasionally even fighting. Children exasperate the old with long sticks. Fear and confusion, but also joy and exuberance pervade these early works. Traylor’s skill in drawing, moreover, developed with fascinating rapidity. The planes became larger and more opaque, the outlines sharper, the form of the figures more constructive….He used his pencil to see inside the house. The motif of the house led to freer constructions and combinations of animals, plans, and human beings. The articulation of vitality is his central theme.
These familiar settings—rural or otherwise—were certainly typical of the American and global landscape throughout the years of the Great Depression when Traylor was beginning his career. Still, he was reduced biographically as a “former slave who became an artist”, until the publication of this volume. Instead, Deep Blues examines Traylor’s work in conversation with black intellectualism, folk art, and the experiences of the American South.
P.S. This book is rare. If you want it, and you see it, buy it!