On View: Bill Traylor, Folk Artist

An exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum.
By Cameron Woo, September 2013, Updated June 2021
Bill Traylor - Artist

The story of Bill Traylor (1854–1949) proves that fine art can come from the most unexpected places. Born into slavery in Alabama, Traylor worked as a field hand on the plantation of his birth for most of his life. In 1928, he moved to nearby Montgomery, where he found work as laborer. After rheumatism forced him to retire, he received modest aid from a federal welfare program and slept in the back rooms of local shops.

To pass the time, the 85-year-old Traylor spent his days drawing on discarded scraps of cardboard, recording Montgomery’s bustling black community, memories of his time on the plantation, and animated figures at work and play. In the last decade of his life, Traylor produced more than 1,200 drawings. Today, he is lauded as one of the pioneers of the 20th-century group described as “outsider” artists.

Traylor’s art is much admired for its complex spatial organization, in which the surfaces are populated by flat, interlocking figures, geometric shapes and animals. Dogs are often present, passing in and out of scenes, working or observing human activities.

“Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts” is on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York through September 22, 2013. This is a rare opportunity to see the work of one of the finest American artists of the modern era.

A new film on Bill Traylor by Jeffrey Wolf is in production.

Cameron Woo is co-founder of The Bark magazine, and was its Publisher for over two decades. He was also the magazine’s Art Director.