The Old Man on the Corner: Bill Traylor's Artistic Chronicle of the American South

Beret Optional is a biweekly column exploring museums, art, and the way we access it in DC.

by Hannah Malina

The Folk and Self-Taught art gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is a realm of bottle caps and tin foil, unhinged doors painted in vibrant colors, and twisted pieces of driftwood transformed into a scene of birth.  You can walk in and think about the art you made as a child, falling into a world of your creations. You stopped one day when you internalized the values of practicality, and now you struggle to even sketch in your notebook. A few floors above is the Portrait Gallery, where you could be confronted by an oversized portrait of Ronald Reagan--if you wanted, I guess.  You could find the portraits of the Americans who have been deemed important enough to be there, by artists who had the success of being able to paint them. This is not that.

Walk beyond the general collection and you’ll find the current exhibit, “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor.” It is the first major retrospective exhibit organized for an artist born into slavery, and the largest exhibit yet of Traylor’s work, according to the Smithsonian.  

Traylor was born in rural Alabama in 1853. After the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect when he was around 12 years old, he continued to live on the same plantation as a sharecropper until his 70s, when in the midst of the Great Migration, he relocated to Montgomery to find factory work. He began to create art while living on the streets in the last 20 years of his life. The exhibit contains 155 of the about 1000 works that Traylor is known to have created, depicting scenes he witnessed during the 96 years he was alive.

Traylor’s paintings are rendered with pencil and poster paint on found pieces of cardboard, their edges frayed, their watermarks strategically woven into the compositions.  Through silhouettes and simple color, Traylor conveys emotionally charged and energetic scenes, full narratives created by an artist who was prevented from being able to read or write.  In his work, we can track the changes of life in the South from slavery to segregation, rural to urban, through monochromatic, chaotic scenes of plantation life contrasted with vibrant, colorful portraits of the black and immigrant community that Traylor lived amongst in Montgomery.

Traylor achieved some measure of recognition during his life by the New South, a group of young white artists who met under a mission statement of “progressive” ideals. But this recognition brought him neither fortune nor respect. Collecting the work of self-taught artists, particularly black artists, was trendy at the time, yet the art was portrayed as if it was by accident, with no credit given to its creator. Black artists were not seen for their talent or their artistic choices and intention but as conduits of feeling for white audiences. It’s worth mentioning as well that none of Bill Traylor’s 20 children inherited control of his now massively-valuable estate. Instead, his descendants were ‘gifted’ 12 paintings in the settlement of a lawsuit with Charles Shannon, the white artist who initially promoted Traylor’s work.

The current exhibit seeks to restore Traylor’s agency and highlight the recurring themes, artistic motifs, and social statements that his work conveys. What we are left with is a sprawling archive of a man’s life in the epicenter of a brutal century of American society.  

Within the American Art Museum, few artists could have lived lives as American as Bill Traylor: a former slave, a witness to the Jim Crow era, a man who lived his later years homeless after his son was murdered by police officers. I don’t bring this up to say that it’s unusual that someone who lived a life like that would be a great artist. It’s not unusual at all, but it is unusual for their work to be treated with any kind of respect or recognition. The paintings of Bill Traylor fill six rooms of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. You can see them there until March 17.