Bill Traylor was born into slavery on a Benton, Alabama cotton plantation in 1853, but he died 96 years later as an artist then forgotten by history not far away in Montgomery in 1949. An unruffled and straightforward new documentary from filmmaker Jeffrey Wolf wants to reclaim the legacy of that vanished artist, and “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” effectively manages to do so in a punchy 70 minutes filled with a mix of clever, theatrical flourishes that don’t eclipse the artist himself. The film offers an insightful window into the jagged wonder of the bracingly modernist drawings he etched onto scraps of cardboard in his late 80s, when he was at the end of his life, looking back on days on the plantation, and on a lifetime spanning the eras of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow segregation.
Why was Traylor mostly omitted from history for so long? The framework of American Black art in the mid-20th century, this documentary argues, didn’t exist in any robust way. But “Chasing Ghosts” isn’t so interested in plumbing the mechanisms that worked, for many years, to erase Bill Traylor from the canon; instead, it’s a portrait of the artist that uses staged dramatic readings, archival materials including voiceover and photographs, and interviews to understand his craft.
The documentary seems to acknowledge that using a two-dimensional cinematic medium to try and capture the jagged wonder of Traylor’s drawings and paintings of animals and everyday Southern people is inherently impossible, and so filmmaker Wolf lets words and people do the talking. Many of the talking heads include Traylor’s descendants, including his granddaughter and great granddaughter, and critics including the New York Times’ Roberta Smith, and the musician Greg Tate, who situates Traylor’s scratchy but dreamlike pictures in the “mystical realm.” They’re animated, agitated, feral, and often violent; many almost seem to evoke cave drawings in their simplistic iconography; others feature marauding drunks, as Traylor was no stranger to carousing.
One of the doc’s most inspired stretches in contextualizing what Traylor means to the artistic canon begins as he acquires a particular shade of blue paint from a white sign painter, one of the many folks who helped him procure supplies. (It was in Traylor’s nature and means to work exclusively with found materials.) The Black mixed media artist Radcliffe Bailey, surveyed here, says he stole his own blue from Traylor, and not from the vastly better-known postwar European artist Yves Klein, also famous for his expressive blue hues. Traylor didn’t have a solo exhibition until 1979, many years after his death. But he did achieve some notoriety in 1939 after meeting the artist Charles Shannon, who delivered supplies to Traylor and helped bring him the attention of the wider world.
Equally fascinating is Traylor’s journey out of slavery and into freedom in the final years of the Confederacy, as portrayed in the film using words from Union soldiers, and sepia-stained photographs of the period. In this documentary executive-produced by Sam Pollard (“Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me”), director Wolf takes loving care to form a close rapport with Traylor’s family, who offer emotional remembrances of their late grandfather, culminating in a moving memorial service at the film’s end. Traylor only worked for four years, from 1939 to 1942, but the pages of vivid, often strange drawings that emerged from his mind feel like they span his entire lifetime.
Wolf’s fascination with Traylor is evident, and has spanned nearly four decades since Traylor’s work first caught the filmmaker’s eye in 1982 during a Black folk art exhibit at Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery. While “Chasing Ghosts” is hardly as bold in its stylistic approach as Traylor, that’s by design, as the documentary is keen to get out of the way and let the work speak for itself. This movie should introduce one of the greatest artists you’ve probably never heard of to a bigger audience.
“Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” is now available in select theaters and on virtual cinemas via the film’s Kino Marquee page.
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