ATLANTA — A new exhibition set to open at Atlanta's High Museum of Art showcases the work of Bill Traylor, who was born into slavery in Alabama and became a highly respected self-taught artist after he began drawing while sitting on the sidewalks of Montgomery as an old man.
The exhibition, which opens Saturday, features 65 of Traylor's drawings pulled from the collections of the High and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama. The images were made in pencil, poster paint, charcoal and crayon, mostly on discarded pieces of cardboard. They feature animals and people, sometimes alone and other times in complex interactions in both rural and urban settings.
"There's nothing harder to do than simple," said High curator of folk art Susan Crawley. "His drawings are so eloquent and so evocative, and he used such simple materials."
Traylor was born into slavery on a plantation near Benton, Ala., in the mid-1850s. He was freed by emancipation in 1863, but he stayed on the plantation and worked as a field hand for more than 50 years. His whereabouts in the early 20th century aren't entirely clear, but he had settled in Montgomery by 1928. There is no indication that Traylor began drawing before he arrived in Montgomery in his mid-70s.
He spent his days in the state's capital sitting on city sidewalks drawing, sometimes selling his work to passers-by for a token amount. Over a decade, he produced more than 1,200 drawings of scenes from his everyday life in the city and from his memories of rural life — images of cats, dogs and pigs, but also people and buildings in busy, active scenes. He never drew backgrounds or anchored his subjects with ground lines, so they appear to float on their irregularly shaped pieces of cardboard.
Charles Shannon noticed Traylor drawing on Monroe Avenue in 1939. A young art student and teacher, Shannon realized he was seeing something remarkable, Crawley said. Shannon brought Traylor colored pencils and poster paints to supplement the graphite pencils he had been using. Shannon also brought him clean pieces of cardboard to draw on, but Traylor preferred cast off pieces of cardboard and would often leave the fresh new pieces to the side to "ripen," but he rarely incorporated stains or smudges on the cardboard into his drawings, Crawley said.
"(Traylor) was beautiful to see — so right with himself and at peace — as the rich imagery of his long life welled up into his drawings and paintings," Shannon said in 1985, according to the exhibition's catalog.
Traylor reportedly didn't talk much about his works, and it is often difficult to tell exactly what's happening in the more elaborate scenes, leaving a lot of room for different interpretations in the decades following his death in 1949.
In one painting featured in the exhibition, a male figure wearing rich blue pants and a black hat with a wide brim and smoking a pipe is bent at the waist, but it's not clear what he's doing.
"We don't know whether he's drunk or whether he's preaching or dancing, but the forms are simply marvelous," Crawley said.
When Shannon once asked about what was happening in a particular drawing with multiple figures, Traylor responded, "That's an exciting event," and the category of similar drawings became known as "exciting events," Crawley said.
Shannon made a great effort to promote and preserve Traylor's work, helping organize several exhibitions over the years and in 1982 giving a collection of 30 drawings to Montgomery's art museum and selling another 30 to the High.
Curating an exhibition of Traylor's work presents some challenges, because using the common crutches of arranging by date or progression of style is impossible, Crawley said. Instead, the works are grouped thematically by subject.
Asked about her favorite piece, Crawley singled out a lively and colorful piece on an oddly shaped piece of cardboard. In the drawing, a man sits quietly inside a house smoking a pipe as chaos reigns outside — another man with a hatchet is on the roof chasing birds as a female figure appears to yell at him.
Traylor's works show slices of both rural and urban life and demonstrate a nearly bottomless imagination and "the most remarkable expressiveness with the most incredible economy of means," Crawley said.
If You Go...
BILL TRAYLOR EXHIBIT: "Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts" opens Feb. 4 at the High Museum in Atlanta, where it will remain on view through May 13. It will then head to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn., and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, with more venues possible.
HIGH MUSEUM: 1200 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta, http://www.high.org or 404-733-4444. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursdays until 8 p.m., Sundays noon-5 p.m. Adults, $18, children 6-17, $11.