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Tracing the Life and Times of Self-Taught Artist Bill Traylor in a Documentary

The documentary film Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is crowdfunding on Kickstarter to premiere alongside next year’s Smithsonian retrospective on the self-taught artist.

Bill Traylor, “Untitled (Radio)” (1939-42), opaque watercolor and pencil on printed advertising cardboard, 32 1/2 × 24 1/2 inches (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Next September the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, DC will open Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, a comprehensive retrospective on the self-taught Alabama artist. Bill Traylor was born into slavery in 1854 and later worked as a sharecropper, finally creating art late in his life when he became too old for farm work. Yet he was prolific, drawing and painting over 1,000 silhouettes of city scenes, rural life, soaring birds, and fighting dogs, created on scraps of cardboard and paper found around Montgomery. Only decades after his death in 1949 did his art get mainstream attention, and today he’s among the most recognizable names in American folk art.

In conjunction with the opening of the exhibition, filmmaker Jeffrey Wolf is planning to premiere a new feature-length documentary — Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts — on Traylor’s life and work. A Kickstarter campaign is underway to support its production.

“Rather than a conventional documentary comprised mostly of talking heads, the film will use commentators to offer information based on historical research and writings,” Wolf told Hyperallergic. He previously directed James Castle: Portrait of an Artist (2008), another documentary on a self-taught creator. Interviews with artists, historians, and other figures will be in Chasing Ghosts, but the film will also involve rarely seen 1940s color footage depicting segregated Montgomery, and draw on census records, the Traylor family archives, an unpublished text about Traylor by author Derrel DePasse, and 19th-century photographic resources.

“We place Traylor in the context of the music, the fashion, and the attitudes of the people he lived amongst at the time, to better observe his work,” Wolf explained. “An important discovery of the film reveals the visual impact of the built environments on Traylor, both of his Montgomery years and memories of plantation structures and his long life working the land. The film will depict how these elements became the focal point of many of his drawings.”

Last year, SAAM acquired six Traylor works, doubling their holdings of his art, as well as the Margaret Z. Robson Collection that includes work by Traylor. At the time of the first acquisition, Leslie Umberger, the SAAM curator of folk and self-taught art who is organizing the retrospective, told Hyperallergic, “Traylor ultimately drew a record that is best understood as an oral history in visual form, and because each image captures a different part of the story, they function best collectively, like the pages of a book.”

Traylor’s work is no longer obscure — he was featured in the 1982 Black Folk Art in America at the Corcoran Gallery, and was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2015 America Is Hard to See, the inaugural show at their Manhattan space. The documentary and retrospective are likely to shine new light on not just his personal journey in a racially divided South, but the tumultuous stretch of American history between slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and early 20th-century Jim Crow segregation. As Wolf stated, “The film will explore how he survived to become a chronicler of his times through his visual narratives.”

Bill Traylor, "Construction with Exciting Event," poster paint and pencil on die-cut cardboard, 12 x 12 inches (Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection, photo courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery)
Bill Traylor, “Construction with Exciting Event,” poster paint and pencil on die-cut cardboard, 12 x 12 inches (Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection, photo courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery)

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is funding on Kickstarter through December 30.

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