Who was Bill Traylor?
The fascinating subject of the couple’s documentary was born into slavery. Bill Traylor didn’t start painting until he was in his mid 80s and was entirely self-taught. Although he never achieved financial success in his lifetime, a piece of Traylor’s outsider art now fetches as much as $30,000 to $40,000 at fancy auction houses like Christie’s.
The documentary traces Traylor’s life, interweaving it with the historic times in which he lived. Born in 1853 on a cotton plantation in rural Alabama, he continued to farm the land as a sharecropper after the Civil War. Later, aging and alone, he moved to Montgomery and worked odd jobs in a thriving segregated black neighborhood.
In his late 80s, when he could no longer work, Traylor was homeless — sleeping in the storage room of a funeral parlor and spending his days on the streets. “It just come to me,’' he said about the drawings he began doing on discarded pieces of cardboard, capturing memories from his plantation days, as well as scenes of a radically changing urban culture.
Other artists in the city recognized his genius and would bring him paints and other materials and sometimes buy his work.
Between 1939-1942, Traylor created more than a thousand drawings and paintings. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, interviewed in the Wolfs’ film, says he is the most important American artist that you’ve never heard of. His work was featured at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2018-2019.
Wolf says the goal of the current film is to bring attention to a master artist in the context of his world. “Bill Traylor unleashed a distinctive creative force toward the end of his long life, despite enduring the racial inequities and oppression of his era,” she says. “The film is a celebration of art and a life that transcends poverty, Jim Crow laws and the inherent injustices.”
Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog) from the
collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum @1994 Bill Traylor Family Trust
More about Jeany Wolf
After attending Jefferson Elementary and Colonel White High School in Dayton, Wolf headed to Ohio State University where she met her husband-to-be, Jeffrey. “He was into photography and film, and the ’70s were ripe with amazing foreign films, which I couldn’t get enough of,” she recalls.
It was in those years the couple met and formed a relationship with African-American woodcarver/artist Elijah Pierce. “This connection grew into a passion for self-taught artists,” Jeany explains. “Elijah was a barber in Columbus and we would spend time with him at his barber shop and adjoining gallery. He would carve in between haircuts. This was an association that continued beyond our time in Columbus.”
The couple headed to New York after college. Jeany, who spent the early years of her career working in public relations for publishers, then joined her husband as a producer of his first film — a documentary on the artist James Castle. “We both kept our day jobs — Jeffrey’s as a film editor — as we worked on these projects fueled by passion,” she explains.
Untitled (Woman with Umbrella and Man on Crutch) from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
@1994 Bill Traylor Family Trust
Captivated by Traylor’s art and life
It was in 1982 at an exhibition at the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C., that the couple was introduced to Traylor’s work. The show was entitled “Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980” and Jeffrey had applied for a grant to film some of the living artists who would be in attendance, including their friend Elijah Pierce. The exhibit , which also traveled to the The Brooklyn Museum, featured over 325 works by 20 Black folk artists.
One of Traylor’s pieces, “Yellow Chicken,” was selected for the exhibit’s poster. “His work seemed mysterious to us,” remembers Wolf. “At first it seems so simplistic, so you really have to see a lot of it and live with it. He would draw all different animals; couples — very animated, probably fighting, but also memories. He was a chronicler of his time.”
A New York Times critic who reviewed the Corcoran Museum show noted, “It was the role of black folk art to make the unbearable bearable. When all else failed, and society had given the thumbs-down signal once and for all, art was the restorative that made it possible to go on living.”
More than 10 years of research went into the Wolfs’ documentary, which blends Traylor’s saga with music of the times, dramatic readings, historic photos, film footage, tap dancing and interviews with artists, art critics and Traylor’s descendants. Wolf calls the documentary a labor of love, 10 years in the making. “Though begun long ago, the climate for this film is now,” she believes. The Wolfs are certain that raising awareness for Bill Traylor gives him the recognition denied during his lifetime and attempts to restore a sense of justice.
In the fall of 2019, the city of Montgomery placed a historical marker where the homeless artist once sat outside and made his art. “The mayor and other city officials spoke at the dedication to a community gathering, press and TV cameras,” says Wolf. “This was especially gratifying and when the film screened in Montgomery later that day, locals were very appreciative and proud to learn about Bill Traylor.”
The hope, she adds, is for the film to create a bridge for people to look at Bill Traylor’s work, experience it more closely and within a context of a world that no longer exists. “There is a lot of mystery to try and unravel, and this opens the door for others to explore further.”
HOW TO GO
What: “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts,” a documentary film produced by native Daytonian Jeany Nisenholz-Wolf and directed by her husband, Jeffrey Wolf.
Where: Streaming at The Neon movie theater’s Virtual Cinema, now through May 6
Tickets: $12. Available on The Neon website. Go to www.neonmovies.com and click on Virtual Cinema.
Related: A talk-back will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 28. The panel will include Jeany and Jeffrey Wolf (producer, director), artist and gallery owner Willis Bing Davis, and UC Art Education Professor Flávia Bastos. The virtual discussion will be free to the community via The Neon’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/neonmovies.
Bill Traylor in Montgomery, Alabama. Traylor didn’t start painting until late in life and he was entirely self-taught. CONTRIBUTED