Published  06/08/2013

Professor Mechal Sobel discusses her research on Bill Traylor

Professor Mechal Sobel discusses her research on Bill Traylor


Although many specific details about the life of self-taught artist Bill Traylor are unknown, his situation was similar to that of other emancipated slaves who lived in the American south during the Jim Crow era. Recent research has uncovered additional facts and clarified conflicting information about Traylor and his family, and focused on the difficulties he experienced living in Lowndes County, one of the most repressive areas in Alabama.

Mechal Sobel is one of the scholars who has reassessed Traylor’s drawings in light of the social and cultural conditions of the post-civil war south. Sobel is professor emeritus of history at the University of Haifa, Israel, and author of Painting a Hidden Life: The Art of Bill Traylor (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).* She will participate in the American Folk Art Museum’s Traylor symposium on 16 September 2013.

Studio International spoke with Professor Sobel about her interest in Traylor, the influence of African-American spiritual traditions and rituals on his art, and how his pictures help to document a pivotal period in American history.

Cindi di Marzo: Thank you for speaking with Studio International about Bill Traylor. When did you first encounter his work?

Mechal Sobel: In my annual visits to New York City, I would look over new books available on black culture. In 1991, I came across Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco’s wonderful volume, Bill Traylor: His Art, His Life, containing some 149 reproductions of pictures painted by Traylor.1 I was immediately drawn to them in a very special way.

In an essay about the books that influenced him most deeply, novelist David Grossman terms them, “Books that have read me”, noting that these books addressed his “innermost core,” in “a direct dialogue … almost without the mediation of consciousness.”2 I believe that this book of Traylor’s paintings “read me” in this manner. I was convinced his pictures held powerful messages, and without making a conscious decision to work at explicating them, I began to devote a large portion of my time to doing exactly that. 

CDM: How do you view the small figures Traylor incorporated into his compositions – impish characters that seem to be propelled by a frantic energy –and their connection to the traditional African belief in a “little me” or separate soul?

MS: There are African traditions in which “little me” figures are regarded as “the true me” that existed before life and continue to exist after death. The black Baptist tradition in the American south combined this African belief with the Christian call for rebirth and revitalised it. In the conversion experiences related by black people, there was a basic pattern, very different from the soul travels described by most whites. Black people recounted that God called them by name, that they then died, and that after death a “little me” appeared from within the “big me”. The “little me” was led to the brink of hell, but at a call for mercy, a small white figure appeared to lead the “little me” to heaven, where God led the person to rebirth and then the return to life to proclaim the “good news”. Traylor’s mother was a church member, and he may have heard her recounting her rebirth. He was also likely to have accompanied her and heard the spiritual experiences of others at plantation and church meetings, as well as at revivals. 

Traylor also came into contact with conjure and voodoo in his early childhood and throughout his life. These traditions, and their offshoot, hoodoo, deal largely with protecting spirits or capturing spirits, and with spirits that fail to return to their bodies. Small spirit figures abound in African-American folktales and in the works of Traylor, as do bottles for capturing human spirits. Traylor also painted a different type of spirit, one that lives eternally, Baron Samedi, the Spirit of Death. Traylor painted him as he was portrayed in Haiti, with a high black hat and black dress jacket, often bringing death to “birds”.

CDM: You have linked Traylor’s pictures to the Kongo people’s minkisi [carved wooden figures or other objects thought to contain spirits]. How do these “power figures” yield insights into the purposes of his art?

MS: Traylor stated that some people bought his paintings even though they did not need them. He clearly felt they served a purpose, and it may well have been as minkisi, objects with spiritual power. In conjure practice, drawings were regarded as having such power: if a drawing of a person were damaged, the subject would suffer. Many of Traylor’s paintings can be seen to show damage to people. While some may portray the damage that black people were suffering, others appear to invoke the spirits to bring about damage to enemies. This is particularly clear in a number of pictures in which white men are ramrodded by poles.

CDM: How might the African tradition of power writing have spurred Traylor to pick up a pencil to draw when he was an elderly black man living on the streets in Montgomery during the Depression?

MS: Traylor may have been painting long before Charles Shannon [a young, native Montgomery artist] observed him with a pencil in hand in the spring of 1939. His granddaughter, Margaret Traylor Staffney, reported that when he lived in a shack on Bell Street in Montgomery, circa 1930, he drew with charcoal, and hung his works for sale on the fence around his home. None of these pictures survived, but the extraordinary works he painted after Shannon started saving them suggest that he had a very strong need to both reveal and keep hidden –from whites – what he had to say.

Traylor believed that his son Will, who was shot to death by two Birmingham policemen in August 1929, was lynched. I am convinced he was right, and that this lynching led him to break through his lifelong silence about the violent oppression of himself, his family and virtually all black people.

CDM: You say in your book that Traylor was not typically religious in Christian terms. Can you explain the spiritual significance that his depictions of the crucifixion, black congregations and preacher figures might have?

MS: The pictures that have been viewed as possibly Christian scenes are three paintings; each has a circle with a strong male figure in the middle, and a varying number of figures around the perimeter. The figures could, indeed, represent a preacher and a Christian congregation, but are more likely to be a commentary on his own life, or that of conjure practitioners. The circle was central to black Baptists, as well as to conjure practitioners and Freemasons.

I believe the two crucifixion paintings are of his son Will. They reveal his changing attitude to Will’s death. The first depicts a weak man, while the second shows a man of strength whom Traylor is proud of. A number of other paintings clearly depict a lynching, or a crowd running from a dreadful situation that is out of sight, and echo the calls of Bitter Blues songs to fight back using all means possible. Long overlooked, the Bitter Blues are songs of protest against Jim Crow and lynch law sung by blacks and for blacks in the 1930s and 40s. A number of Traylor’s paintings use images found in these songs. They picture black men committing violence against whites with whatever is at hand, and exhibiting the male sex organ to show that “yo’s is a man’s”.3

It should be noted that in January 1944, at the age of 91, Traylor became a Catholic. Traylor was still painting when Shannon returned from army service in 1946, but he felt that Traylor’s latest paintings were not worth saving. Several photographs indicate they were very pacific: his commitment to Catholic values may have stopped him from depicting conjure spirits or calling for armed resistance.

CDM: Since Traylor’s inclusion in the Corcoran Gallery’s 1982 exhibition, Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, he has gained a place in major collections of American folk art, as well as in the history of modern art. Apart from the aesthetic appeal of his pictures, how do the narratives they contain amplify our understanding of American history during his time?

MS: The complex narratives almost all depict characters in great pain. Heads without bodies, missing limbs, people enclosed in small circles, guns and endless cudgels raised to cause mayhem. Houses are empty, and people are falling through space, or out on limbs, being poked in their bodies at vulnerable points by small figures. Dogs are clearly violent, and people are also. Traylor was painting the south that William Faulkner was struggling to describe, using some of the same techniques of conflation of time and place and purpose, so that each viewer, or reader, must construe the story anew. As reading Faulkner again and again enriches the reader, revisiting Traylor’s paintings does much the same, exposing slavery, Jim Crow and lynch law for our eyes to see.4

CDM: Thank you for sharing your research on Bill Traylor’s life and art with our readers, Professor Sobel. Certainly, his pictures will continue to be a rich and fascinating source for further study and appreciation.

*Professor Sobel’s other books include The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia and Trabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith, both published by Princeton University Press.

1. The book accompanied a 1991 Traylor exhibition at the Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York City.
2. David Grossman. Books that have read me: the works that shaped my imagination. Tablet, 23 October 2008.
3. Lawrence Gellert. Negro Songs of Protest, Music Vanguard 1, No.1, 1935: 12. The Bitter Blues were not often sung when whites were present, and not recorded by record companies. Gellert was the most assiduous collector and earliest publisher of the songs. See Steven Garabedian: Reds, whites and the blues: Lawrence Gellert, Negro songs of protest, and the leftwing folksong revival of the 1930s and 1940s. American Quarterly57, No.1, 2005: 179-206.
4. Sobel is working on a book about William Faulkner.


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