Bill Traylor had already lived a full life before he was born as an artist. Enslaved at birth on an Alabama cotton plantation in 1853 and having spent his entire life as a farmer within a 40-mile radius of Montgomery, it was only in his late 80s that, homeless and alone, he parked at an intersection. bustling in the segregated black neighborhood of the state capitol and began to draw and paint.
Through scraps of discarded cardboard – candy box lids, old window advertisements – were spread memories of his days on the plantation and scenes of the rapidly changing urban landscape swirling around him. Over a thousand eye-catching, minimalist works of art flowed from his hands in the three years between 1939 and 1942, a rich treasure that remains the only significant body of drawings and paintings of a person enslaved at birth.
The new film Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts introduces a wider audience to one of the 20th century’s greatest American artists, whose life spanned slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, and tumultuous social upheaval and politics that accompanied it. As art critic Roberta Smith proclaims in the film, Traylor is “probably the greatest artist you’ve never heard of.”
Filmmaker Jeffrey Wolf clearly remembers his first exposure to Traylor’s work, just before the landmark 1982 exhibition. Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC. “They were unpacking the Bill Traylors, and that was my first glimpse of them, sitting on the floor before being hung,” Wolf recently recalled to The Guardian. “They just knocked me unconscious. I was in my early 20s and they had this effect on me that never went away. “
The film took nearly a decade from inception to completion, and one of the main challenges was the research. “The records are not very well kept, especially for poor, black and homeless people at the time,” said Wolf, who in 2008 made a documentary about the deaf, self-taught artist of the 20th century. James Castle. “We really had to dig deep.”
But filmmaker Sam Pollard, who ran this year’s MLK / FBI and was an executive producer on Chasing Ghosts, believes the Wolf documentary comes at just the right time. “In the United States, there has been an awakening to the deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police and the notion that this country’s history of racism is deeply ingrained,” he said. “Here comes Jeff with a movie about an artist who basically lived through all these different periods and also lived in a place that becomes the center of a major shift in terms of civil rights with the Montgomery bus boycott. Jeff has created a movie that talks about the past that is present. “
And it illuminates the period of Reconstruction that is often overlooked: Traylor’s art is the only body of work done by a black artist of his day to survive. “He’s a chronicler,” says Wolf. “He is telling a story from his time. And he was also a social critic of African-American life, and the survival of the play also keeps that African-American world alive. “
Since he never learned to read or write, Traylor devised his own visual language rooted not only in his personal memories, but also in the popular customs of African-American culture at the time: singing and storytelling, survival, and healing. “He wrote all this oral history in the language that was available to him, which was the language of images,” says Smithsonian folk art curator Leslie Umberger in the film.
Much of his work is indirect, perhaps because it had to be: It was extremely risky for African Americans in the Jim Crow South to clearly express any point of view. Part of the first generation of black people to become U.S. citizens, he was raised in Lowndes County “bloody”, infamous for the violence inflicted by whites against their black neighbors who sought to exercise their legal rights and freedoms after the civil war. But employing symbolism, allegory, and abstraction, he was able to tackle topics from literacy to lynching.
Traylor himself is also an enigmatic figure (there are few photographs of him and many gaps remain in his biography), but the film strives to encompass the whole man. Married three times and the father of about 15 children, Traylor was, in Wolf’s words, at once “lustful, raunchy, tough and resourceful, with the ability to fit big ideas into small spaces. [The film is] showing a full life, it wasn’t perfect. “
Chasing Ghosts also places Traylor’s life and work in the context of the story at that time and place. “Montgomery is a place that has a lot of good and bad history,” says Wolf, who spent seven years producing the film back and forth between the South and his home in New York City. “The south is much more complicated than it seems. I was this northern white Jew, but I found common ground with so many interesting people. I would meet the most right-wing person, but when it came to helping me find the cotton field I could shoot at, they jumped back to help. “
In addition to stock photography and footage and perspectives from contemporary artists, curators, scholars, and descendants of Traylor, the film employs snippets of dance, poetry, and prose to emphasize the themes of his life and work, and period music underlines the colorful and kinetic works of art ‘comparisons to blues and jazz. Acclaimed tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith was tasked with translating Traylor’s art into dance, and drawings and paintings featuring the arms and legs of moving figures are rhythmically assembled with Smith’s choreography to dazzling effect. “I showed him Traylor’s work, and he came up with poses from the drawings,” Wolf said. “Then on a very hot night and on a very hot stage, he just danced like crazy.”
“Some of these documentaries that used to be made about artists were, to be frank, boring, just boring,” added Pollard. “Jeff came in with some visuals and a point of view and he took it to another level.”
Although the first major exhibition of Traylor’s work was not shown until 30 years after his death in 1949, he is now considered one of America’s greatest self-taught artists (a imperfect qualifier, to be sure). The Innovator 2018 Smithsonian the exhibition was the first major retrospective ever organized for an artist born into slavery; Last year, one of Traylor’s works, a gift from Steven Spielberg to Alice Walker, sold for a record at auction. Scholars continue study your work, and a lynching memorial and museum opened in Montgomery in 2018, just blocks from the old Traylor outpost.
But the ambiguity persists in Traylor’s work: is the white-faced cat that appears in his most violent scenes a witness or a ghost? Is the top hat on many of the figures a nod to Abraham Lincoln, as Pollard suggests? And perhaps the biggest mystery is why, in his last years of life, this prodigious production exploded on him. Wolf admits he’s puzzled: “It’s this momentous moment when he brought together these ancient memories, roots, and history and poured out all of this work in a short amount of time. It’s kind of a phenomenon. That’s something we didn’t discover, but that’s the magic for him, what he held onto, all those periods of time. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism