Bill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) is among the most important American artists of the 20th century. Born in antebellum Alabama, Traylor was an eyewitness to history—the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration and the steady rise of African American urban culture in the South. In the late 1930s, a decade after leaving plantation life and moving to the city of Montgomery, Alabama, Traylor took up pencil and paintbrush and created a visual autobiography, images on discarded cardboard extracted from his memories and experiences. When he died in 1949, Traylor left behind more than 1,000 works of art, the only known person born enslaved, and entirely self-taught, to create an extensive body of graphic artworks.
“Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor” brings together 155 drawings and paintings to provide the most encompassing and in-depth study of the artist to date. This major retrospective is drawn from public and private collections across the United States and abroad, and includes 17 works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It presents a comprehensive picture of Traylor’s stylistic development and artistic themes, explored in the context of the profoundly different worlds Traylor’s life bridged: rural and urban, black and white, old and new.
“Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor” is on view at the museum from Sept. 28 through March 17, 2019. Organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the exhibition is accompanied by a groundbreaking monograph in which Umberger thoroughly reassesses the known facts of Traylor’s life and family, his creative trajectory, and the art world’s discovery of him and positions him within the broader context of American art. The museum is the sole venue for this exhibition.
“Since 1970 when the Smithsonian American Art Museum began collecting folk and self-taught artists with purpose, this museum has blazed a trail in widening and deepening the story of American art and artists,” said Stephanie Stebich, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Leslie Umberger’s thoughtful and encompassing presentation of Traylor’s work makes ‘Between Worlds’ a landmark project. The book and exhibition exponentially expand not just the story of one self-taught artist, but also the overarching stories of American and African American art in the 20th century.”
“Bill Traylor came to art making on his own and found his creative voice without guidance,” said Umberger. “Traylor was denied literacy, yet his visual depictions comprise an oral history recorded in a pictorial language.”
A native of rural Alabama, Traylor came of age during Reconstruction and lived most of his life in the brutal era of Jim Crow segregation. In the late 1920s, Traylor left plantation life and moved to the urban landscape of Montgomery. When Traylor began drawing, he had little to his name and was living predominantly on the streets in the black business district. Montgomery in the 1930s and 1940s, though segregated, offered Traylor just enough space to become an artist of powerful vision and ability. Traylor’s drawings and paintings look back at a hard rural past and forward at a rising African American culture. Traylor’s visual depictions are unique, yet they echo the beliefs and stories that had been part of African American history from slavery through many subsequent decades.
The exhibition’s presentation features several interpretive elements for visitors, including a short introductory video, a timeline, audio commentaries for selected artworks and a playlist of songs from the early 20th century that are evocative of the time in which Traylor lived. Bill Traylor: Between Worlds, by Jeffrey Wolf and Breakaway Films, introduces Traylor through the perspectives of Umberger and Richard Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University. The timeline weaves together what is known of Traylor’s personal biography with historical events that shaped the country and transformed Traylor’s world in the heart of the South. Audio stops for 16 artworks include a variety of voices, including Traylor’s great-grandson Frank L. Harrison Jr.; renowned folklorist Bill Ferris; and jazz musician Jason Moran. The playlist, created in collaboration with colleagues at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, is available online through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and features songs from Lead Belly, Josh White, Big Mama Thornton, Johnie Lewis and others.