1854–1949, lived and worked in Montgomery, Alabama
Bill Traylor was born into slavery in 1854 on the plantation of George Hartwell Traylor, near Benton, Alabama. He received no formal education, and after his emancipation he chose to remain on the Traylors’s land as a farm hand with his wife and twenty-two children. He lived there until 1938, when he was eighty-four. Then, after his wife and the Traylors had passed away and his children had left, he moved to Montgomery, Alabama. He worked in a shoe factory until rheumatism effectively disabled him, allowing him to collect financial support from the government. Homeless and unable to work, Traylor spent nights in the storage room of a funeral parlor and days in a chair on the sidewalk in front of a pool hall or under a shed roof in Montgomery’s downtown street market. It was not until 1939, when Traylor was eighty-five, that he began to draw. “It just come to me,” he told a reporter. A master of line, he delineated geometric forms using a pencil and a straight-edge, filling them in with colored poster paint provided by Charles Shannon, a local artist, friend, and champion of his work. Traylor drew on whatever paper or cardboard (often shirt cardboard) that he could find, incorporating any distortions or attributes of the material into his compositions. Between 1939 and 1942, he produced approximately 1,500 works, many of which now reside in major private and public collections, including the American Folk Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1942, World War II forced him to travel north to live with his children in Washington, D.C., and Detroit. Four years later, at the end of the war, Traylor returned to Montgomery and began to draw again. He died the following year, while living in a nursing home.