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- UNTITLED (Dog)
- Bill Traylor (c. 1854–1949)
- Montgomery, Alabama
- Pencil, crayon, and poster paint on cardboard
- 18 1/4 x 26 1/2 in.
- American Folk Art Museum, gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr., 1990.1.1
- Bill Traylor’s life spanned periods of enormous change in the Southern United States. He lived through the Civil War, slavery, Emancipation, economic depression, and segregation. He was in turn a sharecropper, a factory worker, and a homeless man. During his lifetime, unlike many self-taught artists, he experienced modest artistic recognition. He was a brilliant observer who recorded his memories of farm life in Alabama and his firsthand experience of the contemporary urban scene.
Traylor was born into slavery on a cotton plantation owned by William Hartwell Traylor, in the forested vicinity of Benton, Alabama. Following Emancipation, he continued to work on the plantation, though as a sharecropper rather than a slave. He married in 1891, and he and his wife, Lorisa, raised twenty children. In his early 80s, he moved to Montgomery, where he became a familiar figure on the downtown streets. It is not known what prompted Traylor to begin drawing, but it is known that he produced approximately fifteen hundred works on paper over a period of only three years (c. 1939–1942). He worked with a straight-edged stick and a pencil, and later with charcoal, crayon, and poster paint, on irregular scraps of cardboard. He shaped both simple and complex compositions in an abstract, spare style. In 1939, soon after he started to draw, a local artist named Charles Shannon took notice of Traylor’s talent and began supplying him with materials. Shannon worked for the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project; it is because of a chance encounter between an artist from the academy and the untutored artist from the street that Traylor’s work is preserved today.
Traylor’s documents of the life around him are stripped of extraneous detail, pared down to their essences, and transformed into universal works of iconic power. They are at once ancient, contemporary, and timeless. Simple forms rest on plain backgrounds. Evident pencil markings illustrate the artist’s process—he would usually lay down geometric shapes in pencil to create an animal, person, or architectural folly; then he would fill in the lines with pencil or paint in a limited palette of red, blue, brown, yellow, green, and black. His figures are always shown frontally or in profile; the artist seems to have been very uninterested in portraying convincing space or perspective.The works exude energy and demonstrate a whimsical and witty approach to life’s everyday routines, and Traylor captured all the necessary elements in unerringly well-balanced compositions. The color, when applied, supports the emotional tone of the artworks and dramatically highlight the graphic elements, acting as strong counterpoint to the favored pencil and black crayon and paint.
The dog is a classic Traylor image. The hole in the upper lefthand corner of this work might have been made by the artist himself—he often hung his finished drawings from a string to sell to passersby on the street. Rendered in thick brown paint, Dog occupies its cardboard surface with confidence and bravado. Its tail, tongue, and penis all hang in the wind. It is alert, perhaps ready to pounce with its unpainted paws. Its animated eye and ears bring the animal to life. Because the dog so gracefully fills the page, the negative space becomes integrated into the success of the piece. This work illustrates a confidence in stance, composition, and scale that is very nearly a Traylor trademark.
- Photo by Gavin Ashworth