It was only when he was in his eighties that Bill Traylor started making art. His output was prodigious; in the span of less than two decades he created about one thousand pieces. His style was singular and his imagery simple: most often monochromatic silhouetted figures of humans and animals rendered on cardboard.

Traylor was born into slavery on J.G. Traylor’s plantation near Pleasant Hill in Dallas County, Alabama, west of Montgomery. Selma is the county seat, and the area is known as the “black belt,” named for its rich black soil ideal for growing cotton. Not far away is Calhoun, the location of the Calhoun Colored School founded by Charlotte Thorn, aunt of artist Sidney Dickinson. Dickinson arrived in Calhoun in 1917 and painted many of the students, but did not intersect with Traylor, who had remained on the plantation as a farmer laborer. In 1910 Traylor moved to a location outside the city limits of Montgomery and continued working on a different farm, before moving in about 1927 into the city and residing in a boarding house while earning money assisting a shoemaker. Welfare records list his 1936 address as a funeral home where he spent nights, living on the streets during the day and selling pencils.

Around 1938 Traylor began to draw small sketches while sitting outside a blacksmith’s shop in the black business district. The following year John Lapsley and Charles Shannon encountered and befriended him, presenting him with some modest art supplies. Even after the latter gave Traylor some new cardboard to work on, he preferred old cardboard—gathered from cereal and candy boxes, as well as the backings from laundered shirts. 

Both Lapsley and Shannon were active participants in the New South School and Gallery, a collaborative of progressive artists and writers which they founded in 1939. Lapsley and Crawford Gillis both had exhibitions; Lapsley and Shannon taught a painting class, and there were discussions groups about music, literature, and contemporary sociopolitical topics. The final New South project was an exhibition of Traylor’s work in early 1940. About one hundred of his pieces covered the walls of the organization’s  gallery space. A small booklet with a short text attributed to Shannon accompanied the exhibition and stated: “Bill Traylor’s works are completely uninfluenced by our Western culture. Strictly in the folk idiom—they are as unselfconscious and spontaneous as Negro spirituals.” With Shannon’s assistance, Traylor, who was using two canes and moving slowly, viewed the exhibition, but did not linger. “There had been no acknowledgment that this was his work, and he never mentioned his show again.” The exhibition generated a few articles in the local press, but their tone was rather patronizing.

For imagery Traylor drew on his own experiences and occasionally from newspaper photographs or posters. There are numerous animals—horses, dogs and cats, often with disproportionately large eyes. Sometimes there were underlying stories, but most often the depictions were of single figures; more men than women. The compositions lack perspective and ground lines and bodies often float in space. Traylor never learned to read or write, except for managing a rather scrawled version of his signature. He used poster paints; black was his dominant color, and his next favorite was a bright blue. 

Traylor spent his days making art on the streets, and often did not have a roof over his head, despite an occasional stipend from the local welfare agency. Most of his many children had left the South and had settled in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. He visited them, but never wanted to stay, preferring his life in Montgomery. 

Almost thirty years after Traylor’s death in 1948, Shannon began to make plans for the disposition of his collection which had been the basis of the 1940 exhibition at the New South Gallery. He approached a few New York galleries about the prospect of handling Traylor’s work. Several exhibitions and publications ensued, culminating in 1982 with an exhibition in Washington, DC, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Black Folk Art in America. Twenty artists were included, and Traylor was represented by thirty-two pieces, one of which appeared on the cover of the catalogue. Other exhibitions followed including one at the Montgomery Museum of Art showcasing Shannon’s gift of thirty works. Questions lingered, however, whether he had taken, bought, or exchanged them for art supplies. In 1992 Traylor’s descendants filed a lawsuit against Shannon and Hirschl & Adler Modern, a New York gallery that was handling the work. The suit was settled the following year, concluding with the following statement: “We became convinced that, in fact, Shannon had supported Bill Traylor and had paid him fair consideration for his art work.” In 2018 the Smithsonian American Art Museum mounted an extensive exhibition of Traylor’s art and published a thoroughly researched book, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor which put the artist into context.