Bill Traylor was many things: a slave, a sharecropper, a father, and one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century. He lived in Alabama through the most chaotic and violent period in our history when everything in society and nature conspired to drag powerless people like Traylor under.
But, instead of disappearing, Bill Traylor soared.
Near the end of his long life, Traylor sat down, by the corner of Monroe Street, in the heart of Montgomery’s black business district and drew. It was between 1939-1942, working with astonishing patience and focus, that Traylor created over 1000 works of singular genius that today still bear witness to his ordinary, extraordinary life and times.
If ever there was a story about the redemptive power of art and transcendence of the human spirit, this is it.
Who was Bill Traylor?
Bill Traylor was born in 1853 on an Alabama cotton plantation owned by John Traylor in Dallas County, Alabama. Born into slavery, Traylor was about twelve years old when the Civil War ended, ending his legal servitude but not the basics of his way of life: he continued to live near his birthplace for another six decades, working as a farm laborer and contract farmer for the Traylor family until the late 1920s. Aging and alone, he moved to Montgomery and worked odd jobs in the segregated black neighborhood.
A decade later, in his late eighties, too weak to work, Traylor became homeless and started to draw and paint, both past memories from plantation days and current scenes of a radically changing culture in which black people had their own businesses, schools, churches, clothing and hair styles, music, food-ways and more. Traylor witnessed profound social and political change. Raised by parents who had lived their whole lives as slaves, Traylor came of age with the first generation of African American citizens.
His life ultimately spanned slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation and the Great Migration—which led most of his children away from the South. Traylor’s generation had little and struggled inestimably; yet they stood together, persisted, and laid the groundwork for the coming era of Civil Rights.
Traylor’s story is the ultimate American story. Having never learned to read or write, Traylor created his own visual language as a means to communicate and record the stories of his life. Traylor had an amazing way with color and is often compared to jazz and the blues; he translated an oral culture into something original, powerful, culturally rooted and entirely personal.
But music and folktales were much better at surviving than physical objects that demanded care, and Traylor’s art is the sole body of work made by a black artist of his era to survive. He made over a thousand drawings and paintings on discarded cardboard between 1939 and 1942; this body of work is truly a national treasure.
My introduction to artist Bill Traylor came with the 1982 watershed exhibit “Black Folk Art in America” at the Smithsonian Corcoran Museum of Art. I had applied for a small grant to film the opening and interview a number of the living artists who were able to attend, e.g. Blues musician and sculptor James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, South Carolina artist Sam Doyle, Alabama’s Mose Tolliver, and woodcarver Elijah Pierce, to name a few.
Through the years I’ve made short films using that footage, always thinking about how to document Bill Traylor in a feature-length film. Over the more than three decades since that first encounter, my interest in Traylor continued to intensify with a desire to unravel and delve deeper into his art through the context of Southern culture and the complexities of the Jim Crow South.
Today, Bill Traylor is one of the most celebrated self-taught artists, with one of the most remarkable and unlikely biographies. Now, coming full circle, my documentary film Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts will premiere at the opening of a retrospective of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, organized by curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art Leslie Umberger.
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts offers a unique perspective on a turbulent and often misunderstood century of Southern history, and on the experience of ordinary black people in extraordinary times; it also offers an inspiring lesson on the stubborn persistence of the human spirit, and the transcendent power of human creativity.
Using animation, new interviews, archival photography, musical and dance performances, dramatic readings, and, most importantly, Traylor’s striking drawings and paintings, Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is a 90-minute documentary designed to bring the spirit of his unforgettable work to life onscreen, and to introduce one of America’s most important and famous artists you’ve never heard of.
The film prominently features Traylor’s enigmatic drawings and paintings, whose genius resides in their ability to tell their own stories. We will use them as Traylor drew them—as a way to conjure up the world that lived in his memory of a vanished rural past, and to respond to what he saw from the margins of an early 20th century Southern city.
As a seasoned filmmaker and finding a collaborating partner in writer/producer Fred Barron, we have mined the archives, explored Traylor’s plantation life and Montgomery migration, researched the context of Southern black culture and history, interviewed authorities in these fields, and compiled a resource of Traylor’s known pieces of art.
Jeffrey Wolf (Director/Producer/Editor) made the acclaimed documentary, James Castle: Portrait of an Artist, an award-winning film that delves into the life and creative process of the artist James Castle, as told by family members, artists and members of the deaf community. He has also made short films about the following artists: James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, Martin Ramirez, Elijah Pierce, and Gregory Van Maanen. As a feature film editor, Wolf is recognized for his film work with prominent directors such as Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, David Grubin, John Waters, Ted Demme, and Lasse Hallström. Films include The Ref, Beautiful Girls, Holes, Life, among others. Wolf is a member of the American Folk Art Museum's Council for Art Brut and Self-Taught Art. The purpose of this group is to help guide the museum curators in understanding what is important to the museum membership and public at large.
Fred Barron (Writer) was Executive Producer on Seinfeld, created Caroline in the City and wrote/executive produced The Larry Sanders Show. His BBC series My Family has been one of the longest running shows in British television history. Barron's shows have won Emmy, Cable-Ace, BAFTA and Royal Television Society awards.
Nancy Novack (Editor) is an Emmy Award winning editor of When the Levees Broke. Other award-winning films include: Take My Nose…Please!, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross for PBS, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies and My Lai. Novack is also known for editing many American Masters, American Experience, and HBO documentaries.
Daphne McWilliams (Producer) began her documentary career in 1995 as a line producer for the Academy Award nominated film Four Little Girls, directed by Spike Lee. Her other credits include “Feels Like Coming Home” and “Warming by the Devils Fire” for Martin Scorsese’s “The Blues” documentary series, and the documentary Slavery by Another Name, directed by Sam Pollard, as well as Pollard's recently released feature documentary Maynard, which tells the story of the first African American mayor of Atlanta. McWilliam’s recently had her directorial debut for her documentary film In a Perfect World…
Henry Adebonojo (Cinematographer) In 2001, Henry was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the documentary Half Past Autumn—The Life and Works of Gordon Parks for HBO directed by Craig Rice, and in the same year, the documentary On Hallowed Ground—The Championships of the Rucker, a basketball documentary program directed by Kip and Kern Konwiser, won a Sports Emmy for best documentary subject. In 2016, Henry was invited by acclaimed director Raoul Peck to contribute to the production for I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary based on an unfinished work by the author James Baldwin. This film was nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary class in 2017. He recently worked on a documentary titled Maynard about Atlanta’s first black Mayor Maynard Holbrook Jackson, directed by the award-winning director Sam Pollard.
Sam Pollard (Consulting Producer) is an accomplished feature film and television video editor, and documentary producer/director whose work spans 30+ years. He’s been involved with practically every iconic African-American film during that time including as director of Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun for American Masters and Slavery by Another Name for national PBS broadcast. In addition to his film, video and documentary work, Pollard is a Professor of Film Studies at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Pollard brings invaluable experience and a deep knowledge of African-American culture as well as filmmaking expertise.
How will the funds be used?
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts will premiere at the opening of a retrospective of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Between now and then, there’s a great deal of work ahead!
To make Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts a reality, we need to meet our fundraising goal with this campaign. Your contributions will help us move forward to pay for a crew to begin production in the Montgomery area during the early part of 2018.
I am working closely with Smithsonian American Art Museum curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art Leslie Umberger. Her exhibit “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor,” will open September 28, 2018. My documentary Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts will premiere during the opening night of this landmark exhibit. This is the first retrospective ever organized for an artist born into slavery, and the most comprehensive look at Bill Traylor’s work to date.
Look for the link on our page for more information about the exhibit. Additional screenings will be scheduled during the run of the exhibit.
We've got lots of great rewards available if you can back the film, including some from our friends at Just Folk and Intuit. Check out all the rewards on the right hand side of this page. Here's a few of our favorites:
The film strives to broaden our understanding of this important period of transformation in American history. Much about the decades following emancipation of slaves is misunderstood or misrepresented. This was a time that black people prospered as business professionals in Montgomery, late 1930s to early 1940s, in spite of living through the fear and volatility of Jim Crow South that impacted daily life.
Using the artist’s life story and artistic work, we open a window into America’s past. We intend to inhabit this world to provide an honest portrayal of Bill Traylor’s life and times. Bill Traylor did not begin to draw until he was an old man; and when he did, his burst of creativity demonstrated a unique mastery of artistic technique and a unique chronicler of his times.
I hope you will come along and be a partner in this remarkable journey. Thank you Kickstarter community.
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Risks and challenges
For almost ten years we have been researching this film, interviewing the people who have long been involved in Bill Traylor’s work and life. We have gone deep into archival research of the time and area, assembling both archival stills and film footage, as well as sifting through records of Traylor’s genealogy. With the generosity of close friends, we’ve been able to keep the project going, developing the script and creating a budget, now both in place. We’ve hired ace grant writers to help raise the required budget. We have also formed a Board of Advisors committed to the project. A large contribution from one investor allowed me to film the recent Detroit interviews with the few Traylor family members still alive. With your help, donations will allow our creative team to continue production in the Montgomery area. I have made so many lovely friends and collaborators in the south and around the country who are eager to help see this film completed. The deadline of September 2018 looms, and with the cooperation of the Museum and many collaborators, we are all in high gear to meet that challenge.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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