Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts. El documental planeado por Jeffrey Wolf


Bill Traylor was many things: a slave, a sharecropper, a father, and one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century. He lived in Alabama through the most chaotic and violent period in our history when everything in society and nature conspired to drag powerless people like Traylor under.

But, instead of disappearing, Bill Traylor soared.

Near the end of his long life, Traylor sat down, by the corner of Monroe Street, in the heart of Montgomery’s black business district and drew. It was between 1939-1942, working with astonishing patience and focus, that Traylor created over 1000 works of singular genius that today still bear witness to his ordinary, extraordinary life and times.

If ever there was a story about the redemptive power of art and transcendence of the human spirit, this is it.

Who was Bill Traylor?

Bill Traylor was born in 1853 on an Alabama cotton plantation owned by John Traylor in Dallas County, Alabama. Born into slavery, Traylor was about twelve years old when the Civil War ended, ending his legal servitude but not the basics of his way of life: he continued to live near his birthplace for another six decades, working as a farm laborer and contract farmer for the Traylor family until the late 1920s. Aging and alone, he moved to Montgomery and worked odd jobs in the segregated black neighborhood.

A decade later, in his late eighties, too weak to work, Traylor became homeless and started to draw and paint, both past memories from plantation days and current scenes of a radically changing culture in which black people had their own businesses, schools, churches, clothing and hair styles, music, food-ways and more. Traylor witnessed profound social and political change. Raised by parents who had lived their whole lives as slaves, Traylor came of age with the first generation of African American citizens.

His life ultimately spanned slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation and the Great Migration—which led most of his children away from the South. Traylor’s generation had little and struggled inestimably; yet they stood together, persisted, and laid the groundwork for the coming era of Civil Rights.

'Fighter' by Bill Traylor
‘Fighter’ by Bill Traylor

Traylor’s story is the ultimate American story. Having never learned to read or write, Traylor created his own visual language as a means to communicate and record the stories of his life. Traylor had an amazing way with color and is often compared to jazz and the blues; he translated an oral culture into something original, powerful, culturally rooted and entirely personal.

But music and folktales were much better at surviving than physical objects that demanded care, and Traylor’s art is the sole body of work made by a black artist of his era to survive. He made over a thousand drawings and paintings on discarded cardboard between 1939 and 1942; this body of work is truly a national treasure.

Installation view of ‘Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.’ (Courtesy American Folk Art Museum)
Installation view of ‘Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.’ (Courtesy American Folk Art Museum)

The Story

My introduction to artist Bill Traylor came with the 1982 watershed exhibit “Black Folk Art in America” at the Smithsonian Corcoran Museum of Art. I had applied for a small grant to film the opening and interview a number of the living artists who were able to attend, e.g. Blues musician and sculptor James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, South Carolina artist Sam Doyle, Alabama’s Mose Tolliver, and woodcarver Elijah Pierce, to name a few.

Through the years I’ve made short films using that footage, always thinking about how to document Bill Traylor in a feature-length film. Over the more than three decades since that first encounter, my interest in Traylor continued to intensify with a desire to unravel and delve deeper into his art through the context of Southern culture and the complexities of the Jim Crow South.

Today, Bill Traylor is one of the most celebrated self-taught artists, with one of the most remarkable and unlikely biographies. Now, coming full circle, my documentary film Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts will premiere at the opening of a retrospective of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, organized by curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art Leslie Umberger.

The Film

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts offers a unique perspective on a turbulent and often misunderstood century of Southern history, and on the experience of ordinary black people in extraordinary times; it also offers an inspiring lesson on the stubborn persistence of the human spirit, and the transcendent power of human creativity.

Using animation, new interviews, archival photography, musical and dance performances, dramatic readings, and, most importantly, Traylor’s striking drawings and paintings, Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is a 90-minute documentary designed to bring the spirit of his unforgettable work to life onscreen, and to introduce one of America’s most important and famous artists you’ve never heard of.

The film prominently features Traylor’s enigmatic drawings and paintings, whose genius resides in their ability to tell their own stories. We will use them as Traylor drew them—as a way to conjure up the world that lived in his memory of a vanished rural past, and to respond to what he saw from the margins of an early 20th century Southern city.

Monroe Street in Alabama
Monroe Street in Alabama

As a seasoned filmmaker and finding a collaborating partner in writer/producer Fred Barron, we have mined the archives, explored Traylor’s plantation life and Montgomery migration, researched the context of Southern black culture and history, interviewed authorities in these fields, and compiled a resource of Traylor’s known pieces of art.



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