Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Story Sketching

Bill Traylor at age 85 drew his childhood's world from memory. A slave on a plantation, later emancipated, he grew up on a farm in Alabama. It is not surprising that his drawings represent mainly farm animals or the occasional elephant from the circus coming through town. They also include local people and "exciting events" to quote the artist who eventually moved to Montgomery and spent time observing the crowd on Monroe Avenue. He declined to give a title to his productions or explain the scenes which leaves room for interpretation. Some see festive events, others racial attacks and violence. Why are the works of the self-taught artist so important?

An exhibition of Bill Traylor's work just took place at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta with more than sixty drawings, executed between 1939 and 1942 ( the artist produced more than 1200). The visitor plunges in a world seen through the artist's eyes with the first room dedicated to animals, the second room people and last room "exciting events". The works of small size, well protected by frames are made of cardboard, colored pencils and charcoal. The result is a succession of barking dogs, angry cats with red eyes, fighting with threatening teeth, rabbits and elephants, people in their best clothes, men with top hats, women with fancy handbags and upside down compositions. The stories are lively, like cartoons, represented by humorous scenes, with dogs chasing people chasing dogs or more serious subjects with men carrying guns hunting...what or who? The bird is trying to catch a fly of disproportionate size, already reaching the edge of the cardboard. This creates tension: will the fly escape? will the bird catch its prey?
Looking closer, the drawings are built from simple shapes silhouetted with a pencil, rectangles, triangles assembled like a puzzle and colored with mainly red, blue sometimes green or brown. Profile is usually the preferred angle for faces. The technique is simple and the result is a flat composition without perspectives. The subjects appear weightless, floating on the background. 
Why is it called art? Because it transcends the daily world.

The artist did not know how to write. Shapes and colors were his ABC's. Plunging into his visual memory, he was able to talk about a world he knew, with his own language. Some people are story tellers, he was a great "story sketcher".

photographs by the author

No comments: