Bill Traylor was poverty-stricken when he began producing the prolific body of artwork that would eventually establish him as one of the most significant African-American artists of the 20th century. He was born into slavery on the cotton plantation of John Getson Traylor in Dallas County, Alabama, in the mid-19th century. Bill Traylor (circa 1853-1949) was among the first generation of African Americans to become U.S. citizens following the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868.

He is the only known former slave to leave behind an extensive body of artwork. Living mostly on the streets of Montgomery when he was in his late eighties, he determined to set down in pictures his impressions of the world he knew, using an idiosyncratic and remarkably consistent style. But the stories about Traylor and the facts of his life were difficult to accurately determine. He claimed to have been born in 1855, although credible documentation suggests otherwise. Much of what is known about Traylor has been anecdotal and contradictory — that is, until now.

In Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, published in October 2018 by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press, author Leslie Umberger pieces together what is undoubtedly the most comprehensive record of Traylor’s life to date. Umberger, the curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, spent seven years working on the project, which culminated in the book as well as a major exhibition of 155 works by Traylor, on view at the museum through March 17. “There’s not a reliable account of records for African Americans born in the 19th century or earlier,” Umberger said. “Even into the 20th century, that continues. That’s why the accounts of Bill Traylor today have kind of settled on scant and not always very accurate information. I really wanted to work hard to determine what were the notable facts of his life and really separate the facts and fictions so that we could situate his art against the greatest possible knowledge about him, but also to admit what we don’t know and look at the reasons why we don’t know it.”

Traylor lived through the events of the Civil War and its subsequent periods of Reconstruction and Emancipation, spending his declining years in the era of Jim Crow segregation. He moved to Montgomery when he was in his seventies, but as far as anyone knows, he did not start painting and drawing until 1939. He left behind more than 1,000 works of art created over a period of just four years. Most of these he sold for mere pennies. “They would have had no material value at the time that Traylor was making them,” Umberger said. “The fact that some people did give them any value at all and determined that they were worth saving is a very important part of the story. They could just as easily have been lost.”

According to Umberger, Traylor continued working until shortly before his death, but none of the works created in his last seven years of his life have been located. The existing works are ephemeral, often painted or drawn on pieces of cardboard. That a remarkable number of them remain available at all is mostly due to the diligence of a handful of Traylor’s collectors. “The odds were against their survival,” Umberger said. “Things like this are even less durable than songs and stories.”

The accounts of painter Charles Shannon, who witnessed Traylor hunched over a drawing on a sidewalk in the spring of 1939, may represent the earliest record of his artistic career. But Umberger also records testimonies, such as one by a surviving granddaughter, that he was active as early as 1937 or 1938. It’s impossible to accurately date some of these early works. While they are simplistic, crude, and hesitantly drawn, they establish a vocabulary of imagery that he would later render with more confidence and greater sophistication. Umberger identifies recurring motifs that remained standard even in later paintings. These include, in her own words, “the predator-prey relationship, the provocateur with power or a weapon, and the tree that reaches toward heaven but is also the site of precipitous events.”

While the earliest works appear rather childlike, his drawings and paintings evolved quickly into stylized and symbolic representations, seemingly of his memories and impressions. “His goals were certainly personal. That frees him from any constraints that a trained artist in America pursuing a professional career might adhere to. He didn’t necessarily care about realism, three-dimensional rendering, or perspective. He wanted to put down his story in the means that he had, which was pictures. He developed and honed a language of his own and pursued that and really fine-tuned it in a very short period of time.” Certain characters recur — both human and animal. While it may be difficult for those unfamiliar with Traylor’s artwork to ascertain meaning from individual examples of it, the compositions seem like straightforward representations, though the imagery is reductive. “A lot of people wonder whether he had seen works of modern art or looked at other artists’ work,” Umberger said. “I think it’s important to turn that question on its head and understand that he’s working from an original perspective. In that way, he’s breaking the bounds of convention. He was defining his own modernism. He was pioneering his own way of telling his story.”

Another theme that emerges throughout his body of work is the close proximity of acts of brutality and moments of humor. In describing one such drawing, a scene inside a blacksmith’s shop where a man takes a swig from a whiskey bottle and is assaulted by a tall man in a black hat from behind, she calls this incongruous polarity a “trademark tension,” suggesting that it may be indicative of the types of events with which he was familiar. The presence of a character in the drawing who is based on an actual friend of the artist further reinforces the idea that the scene is not purely imaginative but based on an actual incident or, perhaps, represents a conflation of moments remembered from the blacksmith’s shop. But where and how his works correspond to his life experience are not things that one can simply assume. “We can’t really make claims on what he intended or believed or meant to say,” Umberger said. “But that’s part of the purpose for such an extensive look into his life and times: to surround his work with the greatest possible amount of context about his time and place in a way that will meaningfully add to the images and illuminate them.”

Umberger relied on matters of public record to flesh out Traylor’s history. Much of his art was made in the black business district of a segregated Montgomery. It is, perhaps, the only area of the city where he could publicly create such works, although Umberger contends that he risked his life in doing so. “He made this declaration of selfhood by putting down his life story in pictures at a moment when doing that could have gotten him killed in this particular time and place,” she said. “The story is radical and profound, and is a real precursor to the civil rights movement. His work had never been contextualized like that before and really laid out as this important American document. I felt like that needed to happen.” ◀

Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor  by Leslie Umberger is published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press.