"Truncated Blue Man with Pipe" (ca. 1939-1942) by Bill Traylor. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)
"Truncated Blue Man with Pipe" (ca. 1939-1942) by Bill Traylor. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

When Bill Traylor laid down his farm tools to pick up a paintbrush well into his 70s, the man who is recognized as the first important African-American self-taught artist had no idea what his legacy would be. But little deterred his creativity, despite living on the streets in Montgomery, Ala.

“Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor,” now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, shows just a fraction of the prolific works that Traylor produced before his death in 1949. 155 of his works are on view, divided into 16 sections designed to better understand his work.

“Bill Traylor came to art making on his own and found his creative voice without guidance,” said Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and also curator of the exhibit and author of the 444-page monograph that accompanies the exhibit.

Traylor was born in 1853 as an enslaved person on an Alabama plantation. In his lifetime, he saw slavery end, and was an eyewitness to the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow Era and the Great Migration, as well as the urbanization of the South. Late in life, he moved to Montgomery, where the majority of his works were created.

“He slept in a funeral parlor at night, but during the day he made art,” Umberger added.

After a lifetime of farm work, first on the plantation, and then as a sharecropper, Traylor had multiple marriages and numerous children before he saw his calling as the creator of simplistic, yet highly symbolic art. When he died in 1949, he had produced more than 1,000 surviving works of art, while many more had been lost or destroyed over the 20 years that he produced the whimsical looking, but deeply telling works on found cardboard, often using a limited palette of commercial poster paint to create his pieces.

“Traylor was denied literacy, yet his visual depictions comprise an oral history recorded in a pictorial language,” Umberger said. “He never became literate, but saw all his children become literate. We know he thought about it.”

In fact, Traylor’s signature, which is found on some of his later works, was copied by the artist after someone showed him how to sign his name.

Traylor painted scenes and characters from the world he knew. His works documented his rural past and the hardness of plantation living. He recorded characters from his life; women he saw in fancy clothes, drinking parties, clapboard houses and magical entities represented by snakes, rabbits, horses and mules in surreal colors.

One motif that frequently appears in Traylor’s cast of characters is the dog. But Traylor’s dogs are no ordinary beasts. Instead, they appear to be partially human and are shown fighting, accompanying the master and guarding the plantation.

“Traylor’s dogs convey a wide range of character types, from docile pets to lethal foes,” the wall text reads. “His many depictions of fighting hounds suggest an ongoing desire to capture the raw animal ferocity and the intense dynamic of mortal conflict. On plantations, canines were common farming and hunting aides, but they were also trained to hunt and kill humans. From the time of slavery, through the decades of Jim Crow segregation and into the present, dogs have been an effective tool for instilling terror. Often portraying the embattled beasts in different colors, Traylor subtly conveyed the notion of an interracial battle.”

Traylor’s other beasts represent mythological characters rooted in African and African American traditions. Among those of African descent, the snake was often considered a deity, while the rabbit represents Brer Rabbit, or the trickster figure prevalent in African American folklore, derived from African traditional beliefs from Anansi to the Vodoun deity Eshu/Elegba, the guardian of the crossroads.

Traylor’s works are often records of the lifestyle of the time. In the sections “Drinkers and Dancers” and “Dressed to the Nines,” Traylor captures the recreational pastimes of the rapidly developing South, when newly freed African Americans relished in having the ability to attend parties, dress in fine clothes and most importantly, begin to develop literacy, which Traylor captures in a quirky tablet with the letters “ABC” meant to represent books.

He also captured, within his oddly posed and positioned figures, the presence of violence and danger. The one-legged man in a top hat frequently appears and is meant to be Traylor himself, who ultimately had to have his leg amputated.

“Violence is pervasive in Traylor’s work,” the exhibit text tells us. “People wield hatchets, clubs or guns, they fall from heights, run from dogs, and flee into trees; sometimes they hang, lifeless. His images draw on the personal but describe an environment rile with peril and challenge.”

Traylor’s compelling imagery gives the viewer a snapshot of African-American history across many pivotal eras, and also shows how one man was driven to capture history through his own lens in an unpretentious manner so telling of what life was like over the span of decades.

An expository film, “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” by filmmaker Jeffrey Wolf, who also made “James Castle: Portrait of an Artist,” will have an encore screening on March 2 during this one-venue exhibit, which runs through March 17. Other public programs, including a symposium on Feb. 22, exploring the themes related to the exhibit and an original jazz duet with Jason Moran and Marvin Sewell, “Untitled (Blue),” on March 1 will accompany the run of “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor.”

Go to www.americanart.si.edu for more information and schedules.

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