An invaluable addition to our still-developing understanding of an artist whose fame raises thorny questions, Jeffrey Wolf’s Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts introduces a man whose distinctive drawings depict life during the final years of slavery and the decades that followed. Drawing heavily on works from various fields — from Zora Neale Hurston’s writing to music and theater — Wolf succeeds in finding a wealth of meaning in Traylor’s deceptively simple pictures, even if he can’t answer all our questions about the man’s life. Some of Wolf’s smartest choices, though, will be invisible to viewers unfamiliar with Traylor’s complicated, posthumous rise to art-world fame.
Traylor, who’d been born into slavery and spent most of his life as a sharecropper, only became an artist in his mid-80s. He had no schooling, and appears to have taught himself to draw only after he was physically unable to work and became homeless. At the end of the ’30s, a group of white artists found him perched in front of a Montgomery drug store, making drawings that looked nothing like other art of the day but had a hard-to-define brilliance. And so Traylor entered the sprawling canon of artists whose Otherness can seem (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) central to the value of their work.
People in this category — call it Outsider, Visionary, Art Brut or what have you — typically share some biographical factors (poverty, mental illness, lack of education, religious zealotry) that complicate how the mainstream world views their work. They’re often people of color, which complicates things further, even when their white champions have the purest intentions. In a 2018 essay, art-world star Kerry James Marshall said he viewed Traylor himself as “the property of a White collecting class,” bequeathed to them before the Emancipation Proclamation. His work, which sat in storage for decades after he died, was then snatched up by the rich at increasingly crazy prices. On the other hand, it’s unlikely Traylor’s work would even exist today — and be shown for free at the Smithsonian, which commissioned that essay — if not for those white Alabamians (especially painter Charles Shannon) who collected and promoted it.
Wolf, a veteran Hollywood editor who turned to documentaries after an unsuccessful start directing features, clearly values artists who fall under the Outsider rubric, and is surely familiar with the moral conundrums surrounding them. (His first doc focused on Idaho’s James Castle, who invented his artistic tools out of scavenged material; he then codirected one about Indian folk artist Sonabai Rajawar.)
He chooses here to treat such controversy as irrelevant, placing Traylor in the context of Black Americans whose work was appreciated during their lifetimes. Early on, a voiceover reading Hurston’s words helps evoke the plantation life into which Traylor was born, and which would inform his sometimes eccentric, occasionally violent images of animals. A 1937 war-of-the-sexes song by Coot Grant and Kid Wilson animates Traylor’s many pictures of arguments between men and women. And contemporary tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith performs, helping us appreciate the physicality in Traylor’s human figures, who bend in wild arcs as they dance and drink.
Illuminating in broader ways are present-day insights from painter Radcliffe Bailey and musician/writer Greg Tate, who speak to everything from the specific shade of blue Traylor used to the “conjuration” suggested by his stranger images of plants.
All the while, academics and critics flesh out our understanding of the work in the context of Traylor’s long life. Though there are practically no quotes from Traylor himself (a condescending one-page article in the Montgomery Advertiser, published in 1940, offered more than we get here), legal records and other documents provide a fair idea of how he lived. He was a dutiful father to an ever-expanding number of kids (more faithful to them than to their mothers, it seems); he was a smart farmer in his able-bodied years, raising diversified food crops instead of just cotton; he drank enough to regret it.
The film can’t tell us, though, when this farmer first started drawing. That’s not surprising: The hefty catalogue to that Smithsonian retrospective, Between Worlds, doesn’t know either, though it suggests he’d been at it no longer than a couple of years before his “discovery.” But Wolf doesn’t even seem very curious, perhaps because descriptions of Traylor’s “primitive” approach to figuration lend themselves to unwitting condescension and racism.
However one describes it, Traylor’s bold drawings and paintings (which he made on whatever cast-off material was lying around) speak loudly for themselves. Wolf shows us plenty of them, in well-edited montages that dovetail nicely with the other elements he has gathered. Actors Russell G. Jones and Sharon Washington provide a kind of theatrical glue to the proceedings, helping scholarly talk sit comfortably alongside casual anecdotes.
If closing scenes featuring Traylor’s descendants consume disproportionate screen time without exploring some questions anyone familiar with his career would ask, that’s probably consistent with Wolf’s aim: Ignore the world’s bickering over who should own, judge and profit from these pictures after their maker has died. Just look at them and see what they have to say.
Production company: Breakaway Films
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Director: Jeffrey Wolf
Screenwriter: Fred Barron
Producers: Jeffrey Wolf, Daphne McWilliams, Jeany Nisenholz-Wolf, Fred Barron
Executive Producer: Samuel D. Pollard
Director of photography: Henry Adebonojo
Editor: Keith Reamer
Composer: David Mansfield