Leslie Umberger on Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

Leslie Umberger Bill Traylor Between Worlds book coverBill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) came to art-making on his own and found his creative voice without guidance; today he is remembered as a renowned American artist. Traylor’s experiences spanned multiple worlds—black and white, rural and urban, old and new—as well as the crucibles that indelibly shaped America—the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration.

Leslie Umberger’s book Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor accompanies the exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, curated by Umberger. She presents an unparalleled look at the work of this enigmatic and dazzling artist, who blended common imagery with arcane symbolism, narration with abstraction, and personal vision with the beliefs and folkways of his time. In this Q&A, Umberger offers an introduction to Traylor’s life and work. For more, check out the exhibit and the book!

Who was Bill Traylor?

Bill Traylor was born into an enslaved family in rural Alabama around 1853. Although slavery ended when Traylor was about twelve, things in Alabama didn’t change dramatically or rapidly after that, and families like Traylor’s had limited options for finding work, shelter, and safety elsewhere—so they often stayed on as laborers, living in the same cabins as they had before Emancipation. This is what Traylor’s family did.

Traylor spent over seven decades working as a farm laborer. His life was split almost evenly between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so he was eyewitness to enormous change over a lifetime that almost reached ten decades. Around 1927—Traylor’s wife had died and most of his grown children had given up on life in the South—he made the choice to move, alone, into Montgomery. The city was segregated, and he was increasingly old and frail between then and his death in 1949. But in the last years of his life, Traylor began to draw and paint memories, stories, and dreams recalling that remarkable lifetime and observing black life in an urban setting. Against the odds, many of the artworks he made in the late 1930s and early 1940s survived, and today he is acclaimed as one of America’s most significant artists.

Your book is titled Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor. What “worlds” was Traylor between?

Traylor’s lifetime spanned an epic period of American history that encompasses slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, two world wars, and, through it all, the steady rise of African American culture in the South. Traylor didn’t live to see the civil rights movement, be he was among those who laid its foundation. Six years after Traylor died, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger just a few blocks from where Traylor had sat and painted.

Throughout his life, Traylor straddled markedly different worlds: slavery and freedom, plantation and city life, and overarching it all, black and white cultures. “Racial etiquette” was the custom in the Jim Crow South wherein black people had strict and demeaning rules governing what they said and how they behaved in the presence of white people—any minor infraction of which might literally imperil that individual’s life. Traylor knew these systems, and his drawings nimbly employ symbolism, allegory, and ambiguity to send different messages to black and white viewers—to “code switch” as we would say today. He lived between worlds, looking back at a long life of labor and oppression, and ahead at the long, hard road toward freedom his children were traveling on.

What kind of topics did Traylor depict in his artworks?

Traylor covered a lot of territory in his subject matter. He became known not only for deceptively simple renderings of horses, mules, and other animals he knew from farm life, but also for many other species, including dogs, snakes, and birds. Traylor knew these animals and their visages well, but his representations of them are complex, for he also had a deep grasp of their symbolism. For example, the mule as a metaphor for black slaves or laborers, or the snake as a symbol of deceit—the lurking enemy.

Throughout his oeuvre there is a strong thread of storytelling. He often revisits particular themes or memories, and very often the works cohere when seen together in ways they don’t when viewed alone. A particular focus of both the exhibition and the book is to give certain images adjacency and draw out related themes, so that the artworks can function collectively and tell their stories more completely. Traylor depicted people he recalled from plantation days as well as the finely dressed black citizens of Montgomery he saw before him. His drawings are often quite enigmatic, as the artist engaged dreams, superstitions, and various spiritual belief systems.

Some of Traylor’s most iconic drawings present multifaceted narratives, chaotic action that swirls around a house, a tree, or a local site such as the fountain in Montgomery’s Court Square. He devised a manner of presenting story lines, sometimes left to right on the page but more often from top to bottom—or bottom to top. He discovered that vertical arrangements gave the story a different reading: events unfold rapidly or simultaneously, instead of sequentially. The viewer’s eye is caught in a swirling eddy of action that obscures Traylor’s meaning, which, in turn, gave him a higher degree of safety among white viewers. These works have a quality of operatic drama and demand a deep look: narratives that might at first seem humorous are often quite dark; the unspeakable violence of Traylor’s life and times looms large.

Traylor’s body of work is a sizable pictorial record of the oral culture that had shaped him. He embarked on making a record of selfhood that he devised for himself, one picture at a time.

Exhibition Schedule
Smithsonian American Art Museum
September 28, 2018–March 17, 2019

Leslie Umberger is curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the curator of the exhibition Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor and the author of the accompanying exhibition monograph.

 

Asma Naeem on Black Out

Black Out Naeem book coverBefore the advent of photography in 1839, Americans were consumed by the fashion for silhouette portraits. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, the first major publication to focus on the development of silhouettes, gathers leading experts to shed light on the surprisingly complex historical, political, and social underpinnings of this ostensibly simple art form. Silhouettes registered the paradoxes of the unstable young nation, roiling with tensions over slavery and political independence.  Presenting the distinctly American story behind silhouettes, Black Out vividly delves into the historical roots and contemporary interpretations of this evocative, ever popular form of portraiture.

Here, author Asma Naeem discusses her interest in the form, as well as some of the surprises she discovered during her research.

The exhibit this book accompanies is curated by Naeem and runs through March 10, 2019, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

What was the inspiration for Black Out?

The spark for Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now happened many years ago on a brilliant sunlit day as I stood in front of an antiques shop in St. Michael’s, Maryland. Tucked in the corner of the window, away from the mahogany Chippendale secretary, Federal convex mirrors, and handsome Windsor chairs, were some of the most arresting objects of early Americana that I had ever seen. The simplicity of design, the lustrous maple and gilt frames, the creamy paper, the intense black shapes cut by human hands, not to mention the intimate nature of the portraits – all of these things formed an indelible impression.

Imagine my pleasure years later when I joined the National Portrait Gallery and became a steward of one of the most stellar collections of silhouettes in the country.

Once I began researching these objects, however, different impressions began to form, impressions of an America that many of us didn’t know existed.

Why did you decide to include both historical and contemporary artists?

Once I decided to create an exhibition on silhouettes, suddenly, everywhere I looked I saw silhouettes—on signage, on book covers, on my mobile phone, and of course, in thrilling contemporary art installations by established and emerging artists alike. I knew then that I had to share these discoveries, known only to handfuls of experts, with the public at large.

What was your research process like?

I conceived of this show four years ago and it has been a years-long journey to find and then narrow down the list of objects for the exhibition. I wanted this show and catalogue to be more than your grandmother’s silhouettes, so I had to spend a lot of time looking for unique objects, both historical and contemporary. I went to many small historical societies to unearth their treasures. I encountered some of the most generous archivists and a few ghost stories along the way! I also had to spend much time accumulating all of the scholarship on silhouettes, much of which is written for antique collectors. For the contemporary works, I visited the artists in their studios or galleries when possible, and had numerous conversations about what I envisioned the show to look like and how their work fit in that vision.

Were you expecting to find so much historical material dealing with race, enslavement, and disability?

Yes, and no. I knew that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the traditional medium of portraiture, oil on canvas, precluded the less wealthy, women, and people of color because of its expensive, exclusive status. I didn’t expect to find such interesting, beautiful portraits of African Americans, the disabled, and such spunky women, particularly within our own collection here at the Portrait Gallery.

What can studying the history of the silhouette teach us about the representation of identity today?

This book will hopefully deepen our understanding of how Americans—women, men, black, white, states men, laborers—wanted to see themselves in the years of the Early Republic. We have always been a polyphonic, vibrant society. It also opens new pathways between our past and our present in terms of period notions of individualism, racial profiling, power, and even how our digital selves can be critiqued through the medium of portraiture.

Who else contributed essays to the book?

This project has been enriched and transformed by some of the most erudite minds in American art and conservation. I was fortunate to have essays written by Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, and Penley Knipe, the Philip and Lynn Straus Senior Conservator of Works on Art on Paper at the Harvard Art Museums.

Nemerov and Shaw each probe the cultural contours of the remarkable worlds of unconventional nineteenth-century silhouettists Martha Ann Honeywell and Moses Williams, respectively. Knipe carefully examines silhouettes from the inside out, revealing various aspects of their material composition—about the paper, the scissors, and so forth—that many readers will find surprising.

Anne Verplanck, associate professor of American studies and humanities at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, who is one the preeminent scholars on silhouettes in the country, also was generous enough to write entries on many of the objects, not to mention offer her invaluable expertise to me regarding the historical art form on numerous occasions.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that readers will find silhouettes as fascinating, complicated, and significant in the history of American art as I do. I very much want the reader to see how silhouettes, like other forms of craft, should no longer be devalued in the art canon, and do, in fact, offer revelatory insights into how our country’s racial, social, and political history. I also would like to see silhouettes repositioned in our understanding of portraiture – what an incredibly popular and democratizing force they were in Early Republic America – well before the advent of photography in 1839. Without silhouettes, we would not have as much insight into the lives of such overlooked populations as the enslaved, same-sex couples, international envoys, and the disabled. And with the contemporary works, I’d offer silhouettes as an enduring, capacious, and utterly modern mode of expression, with their seemingly contradictory qualities of generality and specificity, blackness, playfulness, and the intersection with our social media profiles of our digital selves. The four female contemporary artists featured have created breathtaking, complex works that confirm that silhouettes are here to stay.

Asma Naeem is curator of prints, drawings, and media arts at the National Portrait Gallery.