Painting a Hidden Life


Sobel, Mechal. Painting a Hidden Life: The Art of Bill Traylor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009. 133 Pages. ISBN 978-0-8071-3401-6. Reviewed by Edward M. Puchner for the Journal of Southern Religion.

In 2000, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan wrote of Bill Traylor and his art, “we need to understand his life in the country and the city, the dynamics of Montgomery’s Monroe Street district, …and the components of the works themselves.”(1) Reacting against art history’s inability to address these basic concerns within the art of this African American, Alabama native from the early twentieth century, Hartigan presents a challenge to future scholars that is almost perfectly complemented by Mechal Sobel’s recent book. Sobel includes several notable additions to Hartigan’s plan however, by enhancing our understanding of Traylor’s art and life with “his responses to the traditions of conjure, the Baptist Church, the black Masons, the blues, and both white and black Catholics.” (4) At stake in Sobel’s book - her first on the topic of self-taught art - is also a desperate need to pull the work of Bill Traylor out from under a thirty year history of scholarship that hinges on the mythologizing stories put forth by New Deal American artist, Charles Shannon. A friend and supporter of Traylor’s artistic efforts and a collector of his work, Shannon constructed a fiction around him, focusing on the forms in Bill Traylor’s art and rarely discussing its content.

A titan in the field of self-taught art, Bill Traylor made drawings and paintings that have served as an exemplar within most of the important scholarship and many of the central exhibitions that have defined the self-taught subfield within modern and contemporary art since the early 1980s. In the nineties, his work met a larger audience and began to cross over into discourses of mainstream twentieth-century art by African Americans. Traylor’s artworks are now voraciously collected by folk, modern and contemporary art enthusiasts alike.

"Yet, despite these and other hardships, Traylor was able to create drawings and paintings which, for many, evoke a surprisingly asute, modernist aesthetic."  


The reason for his popularity is largely due to the role Traylor’s drawings play as a historical document of America. They were done by an African American who was born into slavery in 1853 and lived through the worst poverty the Cotton Belt ever experienced. Yet, despite these and other hardships, Traylor was able to create drawings and paintings which, for many, evoke a surprisingly astute, modernist aesthetic. Consequently, for thirty years now, in an effort to explain Traylor’s unlikely artworks, scholars have largely focused on the aesthetics of his work, while looking away from the social history that complicates his art and ignores issues of race and religion.

Mechal Sobel’s book is an effort to locate Traylor’s “many changing lifeworlds: that of the enslaved, of so-called freedmen and freedwomen, of the blues, of Jim Crow, and, in his very old age, that of the Catholic Church.” (2) The author begins her book with some major accomplishments. She reconstructs Traylor’s natal family development and outlines the artist’s life. She then makes sense of census reports, ‘slave schedules’ and a diary of John Traylor, the founder of the Traylor plantation who died in 1850. She even pinpoints a convincing birth-date for the artist as 1853 - a task no scholar to date has been able to accomplish. Sobel provides snippets of daily life on the plantation from diary entries recorded before Traylor was born and then adds important information to where the artist actually lived - beginning in Benton, Alabama (1853-1904) and then moving to a farm outside Montgomery (1909-1928) and finally ending up in Montgomery itself (1928-1949). All of these facts are significant to future scholarship on Traylor. They are followed by Sobel inferring much of what the artist himself might have experienced on the plantation during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, as well as the last decades of the late-nineteenth century from interviews done by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the autobiography of Ned Cobb found in All God’s Dangers, and folklore and social research histories and studies.

Sobel utilizes much of her book to create a possible image of Traylor; one that revolves around two significant moments from his life that each shape two separate chapters of the book. The first discusses the rumors about his supposed murderous past, the subsequent fears that revolved around it, how it appeared in his art and directed the course of his life. The second is the tragedy surrounding the death of his son, William, in 1929. These chapters both recount his life and rely a great deal on how Traylor might have depended on conjure to make sense of and survive these troubling times. Throughout both, nagging questions emerge about the author’s willing acceptance of rumor and stories that the artist’s own family do not always substantiate. They are stories that, believably or not, she uses to subtly lace together Traylor’s art. While it does incite a richer conversation about Traylor and his life, the artist’s own reticence on his art and life and a lack of concrete information deter from the author’s argument that Traylor’s artworks pinpoint or prove these secret narratives within his life.

"She believes Traylor accepted the existence of conjure spirits and the value of being in touch with them because of his proximity to first generation Africans"  


Mechal Sobel’s interest in Traylor and his art in fact stems from her deep appreciation for and substantial research on conjure beliefs rooted in Igbo and Kongo belief systems. She believes that Traylor accepted the existence of conjure spirits and the value of being in touch with them because of his proximity to first generation Africans. Sobel is also especially interested in the nuances of this spiritual culture and how conjure was undergoing subtle shifts in the early twentieth century, as African and African Diaspora traditions, like Haitian vodou, began to enter the mix.

While these African-based beliefs formed part of Traylor’s spiritual worldview, Sobel does briefly mention his exposure to Baptist and Catholic faiths. She suggests that, as a child, the artist went regularly with his family to a local Baptist Church near the Traylor plantation but avoids any mention of this influence on his later life. Strangely, she does not even question the role the Baptist Church played in his repeated depiction of a black Christ and chooses instead to discuss the common link between this motif and the issue of lynching in American art generally. Sobel does however make compelling claims about Traylor’s choice to convert to Catholicism in 1944 at St. Jude Church in Montgomery. She asserts that his interest in the Catholic Church corresponded to both a preponderance of Catholic conjure doctors in the South and a similarity between Catholic saints and conjure spirits. At the same time, she also admits that the Catholic Church would have regarded conjure power as from the Devil.

This form of contradiction or defiance against institutions and society is not problematic for Sobel. She draws it out repeatedly in different instances of Traylor’s lifeworld - in his choice to leave the Traylor farm, to represent lynching, to practice conjure, and to convert to Catholicism - and does so specifically to mark a consistent streak of retaliation or defiance against “the white Protestant rulers of southern society.” (115) Given Traylor’s reticence to discuss his own art, it is these signs of retaliation in Traylor’s life and art against racial violence and against Protestantism that mark the most significant moments in Sobel’s book. Through them, she succeeds in re-presenting this well-known artist as a creator of not just an unlikely modern art, but an art of protest. Undermining years of silence on Traylor’s social consciousness, Sobel also raises new questions and new challenges, signifying a turning point in the scholarship on this important African American artist.


Edward M. Puchner
Doctoral Candidate in Art History
Indiana University

Volume XII, Table of Contents

1. Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe, “Going Urban: American Folk Art and the Great Migration,” American Art, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Summer 2000): 33.

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