Virtual Cinema Presents the Essential “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” April 29, 2021
Bill Traylor is essential. His art is a cornerstone for all who are interested in outsider and self-taught art, African American art, contemporary American art, and the enduring mysteries of artistic creativity. The new documentary Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is an important and enlightening contribution to our deeper understanding of this foundational American artist. It, too, is essential.
Traylor (1853–1949) was born into slavery in Alabama. His life spanned many fundamental and defining events of America’s history, from slavery and emancipation to Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Traylor lived most of his life on the farm where he was born, first as a slave, then as a sharecropper and tenant farmer.
Frail and unable to work at the age of 86, Traylor left his rural ancestral home in about 1939 and moved alone to the city of Montgomery. Basically homeless, he sat along a busy street and began to draw, producing art with urgency and purpose. Over the next few years, using meager materials such as discarded cardboard, he would create more than a thousand works of transcendent art.
Even though Traylor’s art-making lasted only a few years, it was truly a life’s work. Filmmaker Jeffrey Wolf’s fine documentary Chasing Ghosts provides rich information about the history, events, and experiences that shaped Traylor’s life and compelling art. The beauty of the film also lies in its deeper exploration of Traylor’s work from a variety of contemporary cultural and creative perspectives.
When I interviewed Wolf, he described his desire to bring Traylor’s life and art “into the now” not only by examining the artist’s history and the cultural antecedents of Traylor’s art, but also by having Traylor’s creative genius speak to us in the present. Combining insightful contributions from artists, scholars, and family members, along with abundant images of Traylor’s vibrant and magical work, Wolf surely succeeds. Viewers are rewarded by seeing a singular artist whose life embodied personal and cultural struggles that resonate today. Traylor’s late-in-life emergence as an artist spoke to his complex and nuanced past. With his art’s verve and power, he speaks to us today.
About the Author
Houston-based Jay Wehnert is the author of Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars and director of the arts organization Intuitive Eye.
Underwriting for the Film Department is provided by Tenaris and the Vaughn Foundation. Generous funding is provided by Nina and Michael Zilkha; The Consulate General of the Republic of Korea; Franci Neely; Carrin Patman and Jim Derrick; Lois Chiles Foundation; ILEX Foundation; L’Alliance Française de Houston; and The Foundation for Independent Media Arts.