This illuminating documentary explores the life of a unique American artist, a man with a remarkable and unlikely biography. Bill Traylor was born into slavery in 1853 on a cotton plantation in rural Alabama. After the Civil War, Traylor continued to farm the land as a sharecropper until the late 1920s. Aging and alone, he moved to Montgomery and worked odd jobs in the thriving segregated black neighborhood. A decade later, in his late 80s, Traylor became homeless and started to draw and paint, both memories from plantation days and scenes of a radically changing urban culture.
Having witnessed profound social and political change during a life spanning slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and the Great Migration, Traylor devised his own visual language to translate an oral culture into something original, powerful, and culturally rooted. He made well over a thousand drawings and paintings between 1939-1942. This colorful, strikingly modernist work eventually led him to be recognized as one of America’s greatest self-taught artists and the subject of a Smithsonian retrospective.
Using historical and cultural context, Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts brings the spirit and mystery of Traylor’s incomparable art to life. Making dramatic and surprising use of tap dance and evocative period music, the film balances archival photographs and footage, insightful perspectives from his descendents, and Traylor’s striking drawings and paintings to reveal one of America’s most prominent artists to a wide audience. Director: Jeffrey Wolf (US 2020) 75 min.