Documentary depicts unsung artist’s life

Published 9:51 pm Tuesday, April 25, 2023

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Imagine a slave who had no formal training in art, but who is now recognized worldwide as a compelling folk artist. 

That man is Bill Traylor, born in 1853 on a plantation in Benton. Traylor did not begin painting and drawing until he was in his late 80s living in Montgomery, but his work is recognized internationally.

Traylor is the subject of a documentary titled “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts.” His story is told as part of a series by Black Public Media and the WORLD Channel and the film presents a unique look at the life and artistry of a pioneering American artist whose gifts remained unrecognized for most of his life.

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WORLD Channel wrote of Traylor, “He did not begin painting until he was in his 80s — when he was indigent and crippled — and out spilled the largest known body of drawn and painted images made by an artist born into slavery.”

The artist spent most of his life in the rural area where he was born, working the land as a slace and then a sharecropper. He was self-taught, an artist who often used materials he found to depict the social life, spirituality, people and the Black life in the American South.

Traylor’s paintings and drawings reflected black life in Alabama from slavery to a period of time called the Great Migration when many African Americans moved from agricultural work to working in urban communities. 

The documentary uses archival footage, photographs and narration to tell the story of the artist who survived enslavement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow to create more than one thousand drawings and paintings between 1939 and 1942.

On its website, Alabama Public Television posted, “This film, by Jeffrey Wolf and Daphne McWilliams, is a compelling narrative about a man who, despite the hardships of legalized racism, produced a body of work exhibited in today’s leading museums and collections worldwide.”

The film is currently available to stream at world, the WORLD YouTube Channel, the Black Public Media YouTube Channel and on and the PBS app.