Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Art that evokes the primal side of man.

(2021) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Bill Traylor, Sharon Washington, Jason Samuels Smith, Richard Oosterom, Greg Tate, Russell G. Jones, Charles Shannon, Dr. Howard O. Robinson, Radcliffe Bailey, Leslie Umberger, Roberta Smith. Directed by Jeffrey Wolf

 

Bill Traylor is a name that may not register with the average American unless the average American happens to be an art lover – most average Americans aren’t, however. Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama back in 1853. Following Emancipation, he became a sharecropper and supported his growing family as a farmer – he was practical enough to grow edible crops rather than cotton, although he grew a lot of that as well.

He was also a bit of a drinker and a carouser; his marriages were dotted with infidelity on his part, fathering children by many different lovers. In his 80s, he was no longer able to work on a farm and so moved to Montgomery, where he was homeless off and on and supplemented his relief checks with drawings he made on found paper.

His work has been called “beautifully simple,” “primitive” and “powerful,” all of which are accurate. In many ways his drawings are reminiscent of the cave drawings that were drawn tens of thousands of years ago. His pictures are vibrant, full of movement and capture the era of slavery and the Jim Crow South.

We are treated to art experts discussing his work and its significance, black artists who discuss his lasting influence on African-American art, and his descendants who regale us with anecdotes about his colorful life. Actors read relevant passages from writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith adds motion and sound to the interpretation of his work. All of this is set to a magnificent blues soundtrack.

The problem with the film is that it is often extraordinarily dry, playing like it was meant for an advanced art history course at an Ivy League school. There are a lot of talking heads which when given the vibrancy of the art that we’re shown seems a bit counterintuitive.

It is the artwork that is the center of the film and Wolf takes great pains to show us as much of it as he is able. We are given artistic insights into the work; arguing couples are shown pointing in different directions, animals are totems that are predators in some cases, observers in others. The color blue represents the blues. It’s hard to believe that Traylor accomplished all of this with scraps of cardboard and paper, pencils and children’s poster paint, but he did.

Sadly, much of his work was discarded years after his death and presumably has been lost forever, although some hold out hope that it may surface in an Alabama landfill someday. There are still several hundred pieces of his work available and there is no denying its power and pull to the human spirit. If you’re going to see one documentary about an artist this year, this is the one to catch.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is as compelling as it’s creator. Wonderful blues soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally becomes overly dry with too many tallking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are descriptions of horrific violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Traylor preferred to work with scraps of paper he found in the trash rather than clean sheets of paper that admirers would give him; he would work the imperfections in the scraps into the artwork.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maya Angelou And Still I Rise
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Two Gods

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