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Work By Former Slave Turned Celebrated Artist At Mingei

Credit: Courtesy of Mingei International Museum

Above: "Man, Woman, ca. 1940–1942" by Bill Traylor, one of 60 rare drawings on view at the "Bill Traylor" exhibit at the Mingei International Museum.


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


Slave-turned-celebrated artist is not a very common story in American history. But it's the story of Bill Traylor, a man born into slavery in the mid-1800s who went on to become one of the best known artists of the American south.

After spending years as a farmer on an Alabama plantation, many of them as a slave, Traylor moved from rural Alabama to Montgomery and began his life as an 82-year-old artist. Without a home, a job or any family around him, Traylor began drawing what he observed on the streets of early 1940s Montgomery, a city with a growing black middle class.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Mingei International Museum

"Woman with Bird, ca. 1940-1942" by Bill Traylor

Sixty of Traylor's drawings are now the focus of a new exhibition at the Mingei International Museum, "Bill Traylor," opening Feb. 9. Though Traylor produced more than 1200 pieces during his lifetime, this exhibition will feature a selection of rarely seen pieces from the two largest public collections of his work.

Though it may look simple to the untrained eye, Traylor's work is revered for its complex geometric representations of human and animal forms.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Mingei will present a one-man show with actor Antonio TJ Johnson. Johnson, the current resident artist at UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College, will perform a portrayal of Traylor's life as part of his "Walking in the Shadows" series, in which he focuses on the stories of famous African Americans.

"Bill Traylor" runs Feb. 9 through May 12 at the Mingei International Museum. "Walking in the Shadows of Bill Traylor" debuts Feb. 11 also at the museum.

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