Folk Lessons: Bill Traylor


We’re going to learn a lot from Bill Traylor today.

Bill Traylor is the only American artist born a slave who produced such a body of work that he is now called one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

He was self-trained, just picked up a piece of cardboard and a pencil one day, and in three years (1939–1942) had produced 1500 works.

At the moment he’s the subject of a retrospective exhibit at the Smithsonian, and you should go check him out on Google Images.

So what can we learn from Traylor?

ABORTIVE ATTEMPTS: If you don’t draw or paint because you’re “not talented,” you’re not looking carefully at Traylor’s work. It’s raw, completely unacademic. But look at that energy, that exuberance! Can’t you waste a piece of paper just slapping a quick, fun, thing down? What’s the worst that could happen?


STEAL FROM THE BEST: Look at these images. Copy them. Steal from your life like Traylor did. Find your motifs and use them constantly until they become building blocks. Use scraps of paper; use cheap paints — limitations become resources.

AUDIENCE: Traylor actually had a couple of exhibits while he was alive, but only saw one of them. He never sold a painting. The reason he even had the exhibits is because he had his own mini-SCENIUS in a young artist named Charles Shannon, who saw Traylor drawing on the streets of Montgomery and kept him supplied with paints and paper, then kept pushing the art world until finally — in the 1970s, long after Traylor’s death — the art world woke up.


But even more than Traylor’s personal style, crude materials, and engaging simplicity, here’s the biggest lesson to learn from his work and his life: he didn’t start drawing until he was 85. And he was homeless.

So remind me again — why aren’t you Making the Thing That Is Not?