Qualification, Exclusion, and the Art of Bill Traylor

by Leslie Umberger

Leslie Umberger Bill Traylor Between Worlds book coverBill Traylor, regarded today as one of America’s most important artists, was born into an enslaved family in rural Alabama around 1853. Traylor and his family continued to work as farm laborers after Emancipation, work that Traylor himself spent some seven decades doing. In the late 1920s, Traylor moved by himself to Montgomery, Alabama. About a decade later, no longer able to take on heavy physical labor, he began to make drawings. What does it mean for Traylor, untrained as an artist, to now be held in such high esteem?

Certainly, part of what makes Traylor’s story so profound is that he chose to become an artist of his own volition; no one suggested he make drawings or showed him how to do it. In fact, in the days of slavery, literacy was strictly the privilege of whites. Reading and writing were regarded as tools of empowerment, and blacks seeking these tools were often harshly punished. Traylor never became literate, and in his time and place, the very act of taking up pencil and paper might have been viewed as an affront to white society—even if it was becoming increasingly common for African Americans to be both educated and successful.

So what Traylor did was radical in multiple ways. He was among the first generation of black people to become American citizens, and Traylor grappled with the meaning of that identity as he sat in the black business district of Montgomery in the 1930s and 1940s and watched a rising class of business owners and community leaders—finely dressed, educated black folks who were strong, creative, and were assertively shaping a cultural identity distinct from that of white America. Traylor created a record not just of his own selfhood, but also of the oral and vernacular culture that had shaped him.

Many terms are bandied about for untrained artists; we often hear them called self-taught, folk, visionary, or “outsider.” Traylor may not have conceptualized being an artist in a predetermined or conventional way, but the way we talk about him and his art matters. Traylor lived and worked quite literally in a different world than that of the mainstream fine arts.. And as is true with any artist, the facts of his life provide meaningful contexts and deeply inform the work he made. It is highly significant that Traylor came through slavery and lived the rest of his days in the Jim Crow South—this life powerfully undergirds the entire body of work.

Still, when we speak of an artist as being successful or important only within a subcategory of art, we diminish an artist’s larger validity. To say, for example, that Traylor is among America’s “most important self-taught artists” is to qualify his importance, to send a signal that his work is ultimately lesser than that of trained, mainstream artists—that it exists in a subcategory without full rank. To call an artist an “outsider” is to note difference as the foremost framework. The term describes the artist, not the art, and ultimately functions as a euphemism for race, class, or social agency. Marketers often grab encompassing terms because they are easy, but “outsider” has always been a disparaging way of grouping individuals by difference, rather than seeking to foster a broader understanding of art and its diverse makers.

Understanding context in a deep way brings meaning to art that is unique and unaffiliated with the mainstream art world, yet it is key to remember that qualifiers always signal disparity. We recognize that it is demeaning and inappropriate to say, for example, that someone is “among the best female employees,” or “among the best black experts,” but we have yet to fully extend this to artists like Traylor. It has been clear for decades that Traylor is among the most important self-taught artists; his work fetches blue-chip prices and is recognized and collected the world over. Today we need to look at the magnitude of what he did against the larger backdrop of art in his nation. He is one of America’s most important artists—no qualifier welcome. Between Worlds fleshes this out and proposes a different, more encompassing course that moves beyond an exclusionary past.

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.

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.