A life of toiling the land and hard drinking put the old man on a box in front of a pool hall in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1930s. He’d use pencils and children’s “poster paint” to create art out of scraps of cardboard — the back of a Philip Morris cigarette standee, a window card, soft drink posters and the like.
That was the first time anybody “discovered” Bill Traylor. It wouldn’t be the last.
Montgomery found him and feted him, in the limited ways the Deep South city could manage to acknowledge a Black genius in their midst in the 1930s. New York took notice, but only really grasped his significance decades after his death.
And now editor-turned-director Jeffrey Wolf’s spirited, adventurous documentary, “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” brings Traylor’s “crude, primitive” and “simplistic” work back into the spotlight as one of the great, not-quite-forgotten self-taught artists of American history.
Wolf uses actors reciting works by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, snippets of the blues, interviews with family, art experts and artists such as Radcliffe Bailey, and even a tap dancer to conjure Traylor’s story and the world he lived and created in, much of it concurrent with “The Harlem Renaissance,” just a long long way from Harlem.
The film fills in the blanks of a life that began in late-state slavery (he was born in 1853) and can only be sketched in, thanks to a few family memories, rare legal papers, the recollections of Charles Shannon — the major Montgomery cheerleader for Traylor’s work during the man’s lifetime — and even excerpts from the journal/log-book of the slave owner who owned Traylor’s family before Emancipation.
As the art itself is discussed and dissected (“Chasing Ghosts” is one of his more famous paintings) a portrait emerges of a man who “seemed to live a very small life, doing something big, nurturing a gift” and bringing a lost “world back to vivid life.”
After Traylor aged out of the farm work that had supported him and his family from Reconstruction to The Great Depression, he was homeless for stretches, drawing to supplement his Roosevelt Era “relief” checks. Or he’d stay with his adult children, nailing some of his pictures — spare, stylized representations of his life and African American life in the Cotton Belt — on the wall.
“What child drew these pictures?” one descendent — many are interviewed here — remembers somebody asking during a visit, deeply insulting Traylor’s daughter.
When the last member of Traylor’s family that he’d stayed with in his last years died, much of his work was tossed. The nature of it, painted or drawn on discarded cardboard, led to most of his decades of paintings disappearing, even as the art world was starting to recognize his genius and those works’ value. Only a couple of hundred pieces exist.
Admirers say “He just made the work. He didn’t ‘think’ the work,” which seems faintly condescending. But so-called “primitive” artists always face that sort of labeling.
The soulful, vibrant, expressive art is almost documentary in nature, like great cave paintings put on cardboard. Works like “Possum Hunt” and “Blacksmith Shop” stylize folkways, and “Drinking Bout” encapsulates Traylor’s own struggles with hard liquor — giddy abandon painted in the colors of doom.
He lost a foot and later a leg to diabetes gangrene late in life.
But unmentioned through all this is the treasure hunting aspect of Traylor’s career. As much of his work as has been lost, surely there’s art still extant outside of landfills or disintegration. Flea marketers would be well-served watching “Chasing Ghosts” just to pick up on his distinct style. You just know there’s art out there somewhere, maybe not even regarded as “fine art,” in somebody’s garage sale, waiting to be added to this prolific painter’s legacy.
MPA Rating: unrated
Cast: Radcliffe Bailey, Roberta Smith, Jason Samuels Smith, Sharon Washington and assorted family of the late Bill Traylor
Credits: Directed by Jeffrey Wolf, script by Fred Barron. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:15