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Finding inspiration through Bill Traylor's work

Every artist has a list of favorite artists who have influenced or motivated them. For years, Bill Traylor has topped my list. Long-labeled as an “outsider” or “folk artist” by patronizing art snobs of high culture, Traylor’s art strikes deep into an America with divisions as wide as the country itself.

Born into slavery in Benton, Alabama, in 1854, Traylor spent most of his life after the emancipation working as a sharecropper and in a shoe factory in Montgomery. Work ended because of rheumatism, and at the age of 76 Traylor was homeless. He began camping out on Monroe Street and would draw on found scraps of paper.

Traylor drew every day, all day. He would draw people walking enormous dogs, men with top hats, cats, birds, and just about anything he observed in a very flat and unique style. He later used cheap poster paint and paper supplied to him by a young white artist who exploited Traylor by paying just five cents for each drawing, and later displaying hundreds of them at a cultural center in 1940. Two years later, Traylor’s art debuted in New York, but the only potential sale fell through when Alfred Barr, the director of MoMa, offered to purchase several works for the museum’s collection, but for only one or two dollars apiece.

Today Bill Traylor’s paintings and drawings are found in museum collections across America and have sold for as high as $500,000.

Traylor is still sickeningly owned by white America. But Traylor’s salvation is in his work, which screams “I am Bill Traylor, and I am somebody.”

Curt Clonts is a Wichita-born artist who volunteers as KMUW's art reviewer. When Curt isn’t working in his College Hill studio he is usually spending time with his wife, kids, and grandkids. He also spends the spring and summer months kayaking and camping.