Bill Traylor was born around 1853, on an Alabama cotton plantation owned by John Traylor, in Dallas County, Alabama, close to the Lowndes County line. Born into slavery, Traylor was about twelve years old when the Civil War ended, and he spent most of his life as a farm laborer, continuing to work and live near his birthplace for another six decades.

Like many blacks of his generation, the first generation of African American citizens, Traylor was supposed to farm the land without owning it, know his place, and disappear without leaving footprints.

Traylor, however, left a lot more than footprints. At the height of the Great Depression, now in his 70s and too old to farm, he moved to Montgomery to look for work...…

...and there, after a period of doing odd jobs, Bill Traylor found himself homeless, and he began to draw.

It is the goal of Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts to continue to put the work of this master artist in the context of his world and to do it before that world completely vanishes.

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The Film

Director's Statement

My introduction to artist Bill Traylor came with the 1982 watershed exhibit “Black Folk Art in America” in DC. I had applied for a small grant to film the opening, and interview the featured living artists who attended. Traylor’s iconic art was used for the exhibit’s poster and still hangs in my office. Since encountering Bill Traylor’s art some 35 years ago, I have long contemplated his work, wanting to unravel and dig deeper into his world. Today, Bill Traylor is one of the most celebrated self-taught artists, with one of the most remarkable and unlikely biographies. Now, coming full circle, my documentary film Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts will premiere at the opening of a retrospective of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art.

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts strives to broaden our understanding of this period of transformation, a time when black people prospered as business professionals in Montgomery, in spite of living through the fear and volatility of Jim Crow South that impacted daily life. Traylor created his own visual language as a means to communicate and record the stories of his life. Traylor’s art is the sole body of work made by a black artist of his era to survive. He made well over a thousand drawings and paintings on discarded cardboard between 1939 and 1942.

Bill Traylor did not begin to draw until he was an old man; and when he did, his burst of creativity demonstrated a unique mastery of artistic technique. Without setting out to do so, he became a chronicler of his times.


Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is a 90-minute documentary film exploring the life of self-taught artist Bill Traylor, who was born into slavery in 1853. The film will premiere at a major Bill Traylor exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the fall of 2018. Spanning nearly a century, the film offers a unique perspective on Southern history and culture, and the experience of ordinary black people living through extraordinary times—Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration. Drawing on Bill Traylor’s expansive visual memory and his vantage point at the margins of Southern society, the film examines the turbulence of those neglected decades and offers a window on the willful persistence of the human spirit, and the transcendent power of human creativity. Using historic and cultural context, the film is designed to bring the spirit of Traylor’s incomparable art to life, and to present one of America’s most important artists to a wide audience.

“Bill Traylor is a unique American artist. Traylor stood with feet planted in two different worlds—one in his rural nineteenth century past, the other in an urban, twentieth-century world in which African Americans were shaping their own vibrant culture.”

— Leslie Umberger, Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum 

For more information, link here for the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) exhibit. The film will premiere at the opening of this exhibition on Sept 28, 2018.

Bill Traylor

About Bill Traylor

Bill Traylor was born around 1853, on an Alabama cotton plantation owned by John Traylor, near Pleasant Hill, Alabama, in Dallas County, close to the Lowndes County line. Born into slavery, Traylor was about twelve years old when the Civil War ended, ending his legal servitude but not the basics of his way of life: he continued to live near his birthplace for another six decades, working as a farm laborer and contract farmer for the Traylor family. In the late 1920s, his rural livelihood ended by poor harvest and bad health, Traylor moved to Montgomery, where he worked odd jobs in the segregated black neighborhood. A decade later, in his late eighties, Traylor became homeless and started to draw, both past memories from plantation days and current scenes of a radically changing culture. Traylor’s life spanned slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and the Great Migration—which led most of his children away from the South. When he died in 1949 he left behind more than 1,000 drawings and paintings made on discarded cardboard.

In 1939, in Montgomery, a local artist named Charles Shannon saw Traylor drawing and recognized the self-taught artist’s remarkable gifts. Shannon, along with other members of a progressive artists’ coalition called the New South, gave Traylor paints and pencils and bought paintings and drawings from him over the next four years. Another forty years would pass before the art world took notice of Traylor’s enormous legacy, which comprises the largest known body of drawn and painted images made by an artist born into slavery. Traylor’s life and work compel us to examine the genius of an old and infirm black man making his art on a street corner in Montgomery, Alabama.

Bill Traylor

Our Team

Jeffrey Wolf (Director/Producer/Editor) made the acclaimed documentary, James Castle: Portrait of an Artist, an award-winning film that delves into the life and creative process of the artist James Castle, as told by family members, artists and members of the deaf community. He has also made short films about the following artists: James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, Martin Ramirez, Elijah Pierce, and Gregory Van Maanen. As a feature film editor, Wolf is recognized for his film work with prominent directors such as Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, David Grubin, John Waters, Ted Demme, and Lasse Hallström. Films include The Ref, Beautiful Girls, Holes, Life, among others. Wolf is a member of the American Folk Art Museum's Council for Art Brut and Self-Taught Art. The purpose of this group is to help guide the museum curators in understanding what is important to the museum membership and public at large.

See a trailer of Jeffrey Wolf’s previous documentary on artist James Castle.

Fred Barron (Writer) was Executive Producer on Seinfeld, created Caroline in the City and wrote/executive produced The Larry Sanders Show. His BBC series My Family has been one of the longest running shows in British television history. Barron's shows have won Emmy, Cable-Ace, BAFTA and Royal Television Society awards.

Daphne McWilliams (Producer) began her documentary career in 1995 as a line producer for the Academy Award nominated film Four Little Girls, directed by Spike Lee. Her other credits include "Feels Like Coming Home" and "Warming by the Devils Fire" for Martin Scorsese’s "The Blues" documentary series, and the documentary Slavery by Another Name, directed by Sam Pollard, as well as Pollard's recently released feature documentary Maynard, which tells the story of the first African American mayor of Atlanta. McWilliam’s recently had her directorial debut for her documentary film In a Perfect World...

Nancy Novack (Editor) is an Emmy Award winning editor of When the Levees Broke. Other award-winning films include: Take My Nose…Please!, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross for PBS, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies and My Lai. Novack is also known for editing many American Masters, American Experience, and HBO documentaries.

Henry Adebonojo (Cinematographer) In 2001, Henry was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the documentary Half Past Autumn—The Life and Works of Gordon Parks for HBO directed by Craig Rice, and in the same year, the documentary On Hallowed Ground—The Championships of the Rucker, a basketball documentary program directed by Kip and Kern Konwiser, won a Sports Emmy for best documentary subject. In 2016, Henry was invited by acclaimed director Raoul Peck to contribute to the production for I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary based on an unfinished work by the author James Baldwin. This film was nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary class in 2017. He recently worked on a documentary titled Maynard about Atlanta’s first black Mayor Maynard Holbrook Jackson, directed by the award-winning director Sam Pollard.

Sam Pollard (Consulting Producer) is an accomplished feature film and television video editor, and documentary producer/director whose work spans 30+ years. He’s been involved with practically every iconic African-American film during that time including as director of Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun for American Masters and Slavery by Another Name for national PBS broadcast. In addition to his film, video and documentary work, Pollard is a Professor of Film Studies at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Pollard brings invaluable experience and a deep knowledge of African-American culture as well as filmmaking expertise.

Give and Thanks

As a thank you for your support and generosity, contributions will entitle you to invitations to special events and premieres and, at certain levels, to receive on-screen credit. Visit our Kickstarter page for more information.

Tax-deductible contributions can be made through our fiscal sponsor, International Documentary Association (IDA).

Donate online or, if you'd prefer, please make checks payable to:

International Documentary Association
specifying "Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts" and
Mail to: Breakaway Films
225 West 71st St. #41
New York, NY 10023

Bill Traylor Art


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