Apr/May 2009

Painting a Hidden Life: The Art of Bill Traylor

Greg Bottoms

Bill Traylor—born into slavery in Benton, Alabama, in 1853; poor and illiterate; the murderer of his first wife’s lover in the early 1900s; the father of a son who was killed by two Klan-member policemen in 1929; and a victim of Jim Crow’s systematic dehumanization—used art, as Mechal Sobel argues in her convincing study Painting a Hidden Life, as a way to order his inner turmoil and offer coded pictorial resistance to racist oppression. He was “the man with a fire in his belly that he painted a number of times.”

An emeritus history professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, Sobel brings an outsider’s perspective to Traylor, the South, and so-called outsider art, which is often wrapped in consumer journalism and detached catalogue copy. This different lens works to the author’s advantage. Traylor’s life is set against the backdrop of America’s racial tragedy, and as one might expect from a trained historian, Sobel circles her subject with well-researched facts, which she uses to make inferences about Traylor’s artistic mission.

We get, for instance, a fascinating short history of the idea of “conjure” in the black South, a concept brought over from Africa and then mixed with Western and Christian worldviews. Traylor, like many of his contemporaries, trusted wholly in conjuring powers, medicine men, and faith healers, believing that dreams were messages from a spirit world and that the ghosts of the murdered haunted their killers. He often painted portraits of himself wearing a hat and holding small medicine bottles used to capture spirits. Sobel interprets one such painting, Big Man, Small Man, 193942, as depicting Traylor leaning over and pointing down at a conjure object buried in the ground, suggesting a spell was cast on him. Below Traylor, pointing up at his anus, is his “little self” or soul, representing torment from without and within, since in conjure, the body was seen as a container for the soul, which could be extracted through an orifice.

Outsider-art biographies, this one included, often conform to a template in which uncomfortable tragedy and delusion are transformed, through imagemaking, into a fantasy of empowerment that allows for survival. Instead of a harsh world deranging the mind, the mind recalibrates to derange the world into something magic, mystical, and tolerable. What impresses most here, though, is not Sobel’s portrait of Traylor or her analysis of his work, but rather her cool and methodical perspective on the shameful history of race in America. There is a palpable sense of the institutionalized poverty of the Jim Crow South, of how Traylor “experienced the loss of rights and the damage to the dreams of freedom that most blacks had shared after the [Civil War]. . . . [S]egregation increased, as did physical violence and lynching, while economic conditions deteriorated.” Sobel later argues, adding a wrinkle to existing scholarship, that Traylor’s paintings such as Figures and Trees, 193942, and Possum Hunt, 193942, are intuitive commentaries on this racism and injustice, a depiction of the painter’s anger, yet were cryptic enough to seem innocently folksy to white audiences in the late 1930s and the ’40s, the years after Traylor was “discovered” by Charles Shannon, a white member of the progressive New South group of artists.

Music and literary critic Albert Murray has described the blues as being “of a mournful and haunting character,” yet “even as the words of the lyrics recount a tale of woe, the instrumentation may mock, shout defiance, or voice resolution and determination.” To Sobel, this is also true of Traylor’s art—work considerably more complex and socially alert than previously imagined.