New to the Ackland: A Drawing by Bill Traylor

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A pencil drawing of frantic human and animal figures on brown paper

Bill Traylor (c. 1853 – 1947) was an Alabama artist born into slavery who spent most of his life sharecropping. It was not until his late 80s, while living homeless in Montgomery, that he began to create art, eventually producing over a thousand works between 1939 and 1942. Until now, this major figure of American art has been unrepresented in the Ackland’s collection.

Due to the efforts of fellow artist Charles Shannon (1914 – 1996) to promote and collect Traylor’s works, Traylor’s oeuvre has posthumously earned wide acclaim. The Ackland’s recently acquired Untitled (Scene with People, Birds, and Dogs around a Central Form) by Traylor can be traced to the collection of Charles Shannon. It is a frenetic work in pencil, with impressive variety in the graphite strokes, sometimes delicately shaded, other times almost incised in areas of the cardboard. Six figures run amok, while another crawls beneath a raised platform, grabbing birds and being chased by dogs.

Little direct commentary from Traylor about the subjects of his drawings survives. Often, they have been described only by the categories under which Shannon later catalogued them based on his own knowledge and interpretation: headings such as “Figures,” “Compositions,” and “Exciting Events.” In approaching his art, one should remember that it was being made in public view on the street. As a Black man living in the Jim Crow South, Traylor would surely be mindful of how much explicit social commentary his art could risk, given that it was available for all to see.

However, scholars do identify repeated imagery in Traylor’s works that is significant: for example, the platform in this drawing gets associated with Montgomery’s slave trade center, now the site of its town center’s Court Square Fountain. With associations like that making reference to the changing landscape over time, the complex history of the South is apparent even within
the enigmatic scenes.

—Lauren Turner, Associate Curator for Contemporary Art and Special Projects

Image Credit:

Bill Traylor, American, c. 1853 – 1947, Untitled (Scene with People, Birds, and Dogs around a Central Form), c. 1939, graphite on found cardboard, sheet: 11 3/16 × 13 7/8 in. (28.4 × 35.2 cm). Ackland Fund, 2023.6.