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Work By Former Slave Turned Celebrated Artist At Mingei

February 6, 2013 1:40 p.m.


Christine Knoke, director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator, Mingei International Museum

Antonio “T.J.” Johnson, local actor, performing a one-man show about artist Bill Traylor

Related Story: Work By Former Slave Turned Celebrated Artist At Mingei


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Works of art created by people with no formal training rarely get seen in galleries. But when the work is inspired and timeless and gets spotted by someone with a great eye, we sometimes get to see it. That's what's happened with the work of southern artist, bill Trailer. This 80-year-old former slave drew images of events and people in depression-era Montgomery, Alabama. The Mingei is presenting an and I objection of his work and is collaborating with signet theatre in a work about the artist. Christine Knoke is chief curator at the Mingei. Welcome to the show. TJ Johnson is an actor, he's performing a 1-man act about the artist.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Bill Traylor has a very compelling story. He was born into slavery, tell us about his early life.

KNOKE: Well, we actually don't know when Bill Traylor was born. He was probably born around 1854. As a child born on the plantation, he would have been property. So he was born on the trailer cotton plantation near Benton, Alabama. And he worked there for most of his life.

CAVANAUGH: He stayed on.

KNOKE: After emancipation, unlike many people, he stayed on as a farm hand, a laborer with his family, and they worked the land. They lived there and prospered the best they could. We do know from census reports that he had a family and that he lived there. And at some point probably when the last plantation owner died, he decided it was time for him to move. And that's when he moved to Montgomery, about 40 miles away, sometime in the late 1920s.

CAVANAUGH: What was it like when he got there?

KNOKE: It was a very bustling and prosperous town for African Americans and locals. They'd come in on the weekends to visit friends and get what they needed. So they might drive their horse in and go to Montgomery for the day and have a nice time.

CAVANAUGH: I'm going to ask you to do the impossible and describe Bill Traylor's artwork. You can correct me if I'm wrong, these are visual images that are painted and drawn on bits of cardboard and sign backing that he found to draw on, and some of them are abstract, some of them are people. Tell us about the forms and the colors that we'll see in this exhibit.

KNOKE: Right. Well, you're right. At some point, Bill Traylor picked up a piece of cardboard, perhaps from a box or advertising sign, and started to draw on it. And there must have been some kind of reaction to that experience. Don't forget, this was a man that had been working all of his life. He got up every day and had some job to do. And when he moved to Montgomery, he had a few odd jobs here and there. He was on relief. But we would call him homeless today. He did not have a home base. So at some point, whether it was to keep himself occupied or to have this experience of drawing, he had this spark of the artist. So that's what he started to do.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know if he ever drew before?

KNOKE: We really don't. He never learned to read and write. So he might have been able to do figuring, counting, but we really don't have any evidence that he'd ever drawn before this time in Montgomery.

CAVANAUGH: I want to go to Antonio Johnson, because you are in the process of developing a theatrical piece of which Bill Traylor is a part. What are some of the aspects of trailer's life that have really resonated with you?

JOHNSON: Well, basically the fact that he was a builder. And a lot of things that his drawings tell me is that there were a lot of thoughts going through his head that he put there that gives the audience an opportunity to sort of sort out what's happening with that piece of art. He's telling stories just like actors did, and just like every other artist does. And it's up to the interpretation of the audience, and so if they look close enough, they'll see some things, the spiritual connection that he has to his art. He has a foundation there, and there's some colors, then there's some things that hang around. And it's just like telling a story as we do as actors, we get a foundation, a basic story and go into the subtext of that story and tell the story.

CAVANAUGH: You have a particularly difficult job though because as Christine was just telling us, there's very little that's actually known about this man's life. So how are you sort of piecing together your portrait?

JOHNSON: Ah! That's the implorious part. I can take some actor liberties with that.

JOHNSON: Because what I don't know, the audience doesn't know. But what I try to do is go into the subtext. And I do know a lot of things about the general things that were happening with slavery because of my work with August Wilson. So what I'll do is take some of the characters from the August Wilson stories and use some of their traits to tell the story. I see that Bill Traylor was not a person that talked a lot. We don't have a lot of quotations. So I'll take the liberty and say this is the kind of things that he would say. Maybe I'll describe some of the paintings. Maybe I'll sing a song that has to do with it. But that's as the actor liberty how I interpret it is how I want the audience to get the feeling to connect with Bill Traylor.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the reason we can see Bill Traylor's art today is because his work was spotted in Montgomery, Alabama, a man saw this 80-year-old guy drawing pictures on the back of pieces of cardboard and he saw something great.

KNOKE: Exactly. Well, you're speaking of Charles Shannon who was a fellow Alabamian, he was Caucasian, a white artist, a young man. And he wrote about meeting Bill Traylor, almost like an epiphany, walking down the street, seeing this old man bent over, concentrating very intently. And something happened. He went and sat down next to Bill Traylor, they struck up a friendship, and they really remained close friends until Bill Traylor's death.

CAVANAUGH: And did he actually put the works on exhibit when Bill Traylor was still alive for the first exhibit?

KNOKE: There was a very small exhibition in February of 1940, are 73 years ago, I guess, at the new south center, which was a very small community center in Montgomery that Charles Shannon and some like-minded individuals wanted to put together. And it was a very small show. Bill was taken there. And so he did see that exhibition.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, having curated this exhibit, are there a couple of these works that stand out for you? Your favorites perhaps?

KNOKE: Well, I have to say that I love trailer's animals. And there is something so personal about each of the animals. These would have been cows and pigs and birds, things that he would have seen on the plantation as well as cats and dogs prowling around that he would have seen in Montgomery as well. And there is something so -- they're portraits of animals. You can tell if the horse is a little bit antsy or mad, there's real personality animals. And those are my favorites.

CAVANAUGH: He has a particular way of characterizing people who are dancing too. It really has so much energy in it. The people have their legs turned up in a way that's anatomically impossible!

JOHNSON: Well, that's connected to the Juba dance by the old African Americans in the slavery days, that did the spiritual dance called the Juba where they were paying homage to their ancestors and celebrating quite wildly. So it's a fantastic -- we have a Juba dance in the gym of the ocean.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, and that's the Pete you're working on at Signet. When did trailer's art come to be known in the art world?

KNOKE: LCharles Shannon first discover today in 1939, the act appreciation came in the late 1970, specifically with the 1982 exhibition organized by a gallery in Washington DC. Black folk art in America. That was a traveling show. And that really put Bill Traylor and the other artists included in that exhibition on the map.

CAVANAUGH: Sometimes art from people who have not been schooled as artists is called -- when it's good, especially, sometimes called outsider art. Some people have a problem with that terminology. Do you?

KNOKE: Well, artists are very particularly. And I don't have a problem with the term outsider art. It references somebody that's -- that's not trained, has not received formal training. But I always ask myself too, outside what?

KNOKE: You're talking about outsider art, it's outside what? But I think to answer that, there's something about an artistic freedom that I think you see in a lot of outsider art, including Bill Traylor's work. They're not comparing what they're doing to what anybody else is doing, any kind of school. They are -- this art is coming from them, personally.

CAVANAUGH: Right. They're not experimenting with anybody else's concept of art. They're creating their own.

KNOKE: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: When people see this exhibit, and they see what is obviously unschooled lines and flat drawings, basically, from Bill Traylor, and they think, well, are this art is not complex, it doesn't have the kind of -- the kind of polish that I expect when I see something that I call art, what is the argument against that feeling?

KNOKE: Well, I think the argument against that thought is that there is something very revealing about Bill Traylor's art. It's very personal. Just because there's no horizon line or background or a whole lot of detail doesn't mean these aren't sophisticated, beautiful drawings. He hardly ever erased. People like Charles Shannon that watched Bill Traylor create his beautiful drawings it is that he had a surety, that he sat on the sidewalks from morning till night working every day. He produced probably around 1,200 to 1,500 drawings in a very short period of time, 2.5, probably three years, so there was a --


KNOKE: So there was a vision. And I think that that confidence comes through in his drawings and his compositions.

CAVANAUGH: The piece that you're working on that is going to go with this exhibition, you've done other 1-man shows about significant African American figures. How does Bill Traylor's story fit in with that tradition?

JOHNSON: Well, they all have this sublime existence where they've led their lives and tried to accomplish something purposeful that's going to last a lot longer than their earthly lives. I've done August Wilson and his cycles go on and on forever. Langston Hughes' poetry, all of these things have that same sort of connection that they give us messages that will go on forever and sort of give us a guiding light through life if we go back and check in with them and see the things that they've said and they've done. And Bill rights right in there with his art. And it's just developing that following that's going to start growing and growing as someone who is a lifelong artist who chronicles, and his art connects back to a time where we think was a bad time, and he gives us a lot of joy out of that time through his art.

CAVANAUGH: That's really a profound thought there, that what he did was bring the tragic elements of his young life and made something lasting that basically everyone can enjoy with a sense of joy. I want to let our listeners know that the Bill Traylor exhibit opens February 9th, it runs through May 12th at the Mingei international museum in Balboa Park. TJ Johnson's show takes place on February 11th at 6:00 PM, also at the Mingei.