Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts (
directed by Jeffrey Wolf
In 1853 Bill Traylor was born into slavery on an Alabama cotton plantation, his surname taken from the name of his owners. After the civil war Traylor remained working the land to support his many children until the late 1920s when his own ill health and the devastation caused to the cotton crops by the boll weevil infestation in the southern states lead him to the town of Montgomery. With his children gone, Traylor was alone and for a decade he ran odd-jobs in the segregated black neighbourhood. In his 80s Traylor became homeless and took to sitting out on the street making drawings. His neighbours helped him out with food and the local funeral director let him sleep at night amongst his store of coffins.
Traylor drew scenes from his past as much as what he saw in the street. People. Animals. Birds. Simple architecture. He was befriended by a local artist who did what he could to help and promote Traylor by supplying him with materials and arranging a local exhibition. This benefactor even took a cache of Traylor’s drawings to be viewed by the Museum of Modern Art. Nobody was really interested. It would take decades for Traylor’s work to be treated seriously. A solo exhibition appeared in 1979 by which time the artist had been dead for 30 years.
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is a new documentary feature directed by Jeffrey Wolf that tells Traylor’s story and contextualises his work using archival photographs, music and spoken word. For the most part the documentary avoids the difficulties surrounding the positioning of so-called “folk” or “outsider” artists within art history and the issues caused by the commodification of the “primitive” in western art. In the catalogue to a major Smithsonian Museum Traylor retrospective in 2018, the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall wrote, “The way I see it, Bill Traylor has always been the property of a White collecting class” and questioned whether white and black viewers could ever see the same things in his work.
These are important points but outside the remit of this film. Chasing Ghosts is a fairly straightforward documentary which seeks to frame Traylor’s life and work in a socio-historical context rather than on strictly art-history terms. It’s the story of a man and his times and how his art bore witness to his life story.
There is a lovely sequence in the film where some of Traylor’s many grandchildren talk about seeing his work back when they were children and how they would use them as scrap paper to play games on and how, when somebody saw one of his paintings hanging in the house, the visitor asking which of the children had made the drawing.
So what about the art? Traylor’s flat, frequently silhouetted characters recall cave paintings and comic strips. There is a grace to the figures, a dynamism that suggests kinetic movement. A finger jabbed in anger. The flap of a bird’s wing. The jaws of a yapping dog. There are figures seemingly caught in motion. Humans. Animals. Side by side its easy to imagine a chase. The climbing of a fountain, the clambering over buildings. A man points one way, a woman the opposite. Are they arguing? Giving conflicting directions? These are extraordinary drawings that are instantly accessible, recalling, perhaps, the simplicity of childhood art but with a unique, highly personal and instantly identifiable style.
These are vital works not because Traylor now hangs in museums or sells at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars but because they talk a language that transcends time and give a glimpse of how one extraordinary man saw the world. There is something joyous in Traylor’s art that is a testimony to the fortitude that saw him through hard times and abject poverty. As many people as possible should be aware of his life and art and Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts should prove to be an enlightening introduction.
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts screens virtually across the USA from April 16.
For details and for international viewing information go to Kino Lorber.
Untitled (Man in Blue and Brown) from the collection of the
Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson
Collection, Gift of John E. And Douglas O. Robson @1994 Bill
Traylor Family Trust
Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog)
from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Traylor Family Trust
Main image – Traylor by Horace Perry