The Artist Bill Traylor

The artist known as William "Bill" Traylor (1853–1949) was born into slavery on the plantation of George Traylor in Dallas County, Alabama.  After Emancipation, he didn't leave his home. He continued to work there as a sharecropper until the death of his master. Traylor began drawing at the age of 85 after moving to Montgomery, Alabama.  His works were created in pencil on pieces of salvaged cardboard. From 1939 to 1942, Traylor created works from a studio he created on a sidewalk. His display wall was a nearby fence.  He is known to have produced at least 1500 pieces of art from 1939 until his death in 1949.

The first public exhibition of Traylors' works took place in 1940, but it wasn’t until the late 1970's that his work received attention from the white art world. Traylor is now recognized as "important" as an African American artist, American folk artist, American Modern artist, and Self-taught artist, but there were many self-taught artists and artisans in the South who had been born into slavery, who survived the atrocities of that system, and who went on to display their gifts and talents and skills while treading the dangerous waters of the Jim Crow era. 


These artisans included visual artists, sculptors, blacksmiths, carpenters, pottery makers, jewelers, writers, and orators who created beautiful works, and who learned and honed their skills during one of the most horrific eras in American history. Each was blessed with the ability to share their lives and experiences through their art.  Many were exploited by folk who were used to paying little or nothing for what they received from Negroes.  Traylors' works sold for between 15 cents and $2, highlighting the fact that "collectors" who voraciously bought up Traylors' works were not interested in enhancing his declining quality of life.


One of his better known quotes is, "Sometimes they buy them when they don't even need them..."

Photograph taken by Charles Shannon

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