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Toward the end of Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts, one of Traylor’s great-granddaughters says she’s glad that he is finally “getting his reward.” Broad appreciation of Traylor’s artistic talent came posthumously, and he suffered as a consequence. He was born into slavery in 1853, and spent most of his long life as a sharecropper in rural Alabama until, in the late 1920s, he moved to Montgomery. There, in his final years, he lived on the street and slept in the back room of a funeral parlor. But it was also when he started to paint, mainly on scraps of discarded paperboard. By the time he died in 1949 at age 96, he’d produced over 1,200 works, but the only exhibition of his art in his lifetime closed swiftly and sold nothing. He was buried in an unmarked grave. Not for another half-century would his work receive institutional acknowledgement from places like MoMA and the Smithsonian.
Chasing Ghosts, directed by Jeffrey Wolf, attempts to rectify Traylor’s omission from the canon, however belatedly. This proves a difficult subject, as so many details of his life have been lost to history. Official records are sparse, and he left behind no known interviews or writings. It thus lacks much sense of Traylor’s interiority, but Wolf does what he can with the basics. The film dutifully summarizes his life, and also takes an interest in his descendents, several of whom are interviewed and shown attending the 2018 dedication of his headstone. One clip shows the 1992 Traylor family reunion, during which a white art historian lectures the Traylors about the value of their forebear’s work, as if she’s a school teacher with pupils. It’s a strange collision that speaks to stark power differentials between the art world and the real one. 1992 was also the year that the family sued white painter Charles Shannon for rightful possession of Traylor’s work. Shannon had been Traylor’s greatest advocate, providing him with art supplies, organizing his first exhibition, and fighting to preserve his legacy after his death. The legal dispute, which was ultimately settled amicably, raises crucial questions about ownership, but the film glosses over it.
That evasion is particularly thorny since issues of ownership are inextricable from considerations of Traylor’s life and work. As an enslaved person, he owned nothing; he was owned. As a sharecropper, he owned nothing; as an unhoused person in Montgomery, he owned nothing. All he truly owned was his art, and it’s nothing short of tragic that it wouldn’t be celebrated until the right (white) people decided it should be. Traylor’s work is and has always been startlingly original. With no formal training or art world influence, he developed a unique visual style often likened to cave paintings. He trained his eye on shape and movement, and had a remarkable sense of color, seen in his hallmark use of cobalt blue. Traylor deserves a better documentary than Chasing Ghosts, one more polished and dynamic. But there are some inspired moments, like those that conjure the real world scenes — remembered from the plantation and seen on the streets — that Traylor replicated in his work. We also learn that Traylor’s last name came from the man who held him captive, which makes it all the more moving to see his signature on the many paintings featured in the film, to see him transmute that assigned name into an indelible mark of artistry.
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts opens in virtual cinemas and select theaters April 16.