Like many black men born before the Civil War, Bill Traylor (1854 - 1947) was brought into life as a slave. After President Lincoln’s 1862 emancipation of U.S. slaves, Traylor remained on the ranch working as a laborer, farm hand and sharecropper. At the age of 81, Traylor found himself out of work and out of a home in rural Alabama . When, as he said, “My white folks had died and my children scattered,” Traylor moved some 35 miles into Montgomery just before the outbreak of World War II. Living in the commercial district of this bustling city, Traylor spent his days working along Monroe Street and his nights sleeping in a shoe repair shop or the back room of a funeral parlor. Eventually he found himself living on a federal welfare fund check of about $15 a month and, unable to work at an occupation, Traylor finally set free his own vision and began to make his works of art.
Traylor is an unusual figure in comparison to other artists who make art over greater periods of their lifetimes. As a self-taught artist who began painting at the age of 85 and worked for little more than three years, from 1939 to 1942, during which time Traylor made an estimated 1,200 - 1,500 paintings and drawings, usually on discarded paper and found cardboard using tempera, graphite and crayon.