Author Spotlight

Painting with Words

After years of illustrating picture books, I decided to give writing a try. It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw marked my debut as an author. It’s a biography of outsider artist Bill Traylor, a former slave who started drawing pictures at the age of 85, based on his memories and on observations of his early life.

When an author friend first mailed a newspaper article about Bill Traylor to me, suggesting I write a book about him, I rejected the idea. I was a visual artist, not a writer. But Bill Traylor inspired me. At 85, he had lived beyond the years of most men, yet he didn’t wind down. Instead, he found a new calling. That was a story I wanted to tell.

I began the process of recreating Bill’s life by creating a timeline. I plotted Bill’s birth date and his death date. As I researched, I filled in the dates and events of his life. An easy task, I thought. But there were challenges.

Bill Traylor was born a slave. Slaves weren’t considered people; they were registered as the property of their masters, the same as a horse, barn, or carriage. Most slaves didn’t even know their birth dates. Even reliable sources disagreed on Bill’s birth date, with one listing his birth year as 1853, another listing it as 1854, and yet another stating it was 1856. Even his death date was in question. While some say Bill died in 1947, a photograph of him is dated 1948, and a family member says he died in 1949.

At first I didn’t worry about varying dates. I was happy to find any information at all. As I researched, I added information to the timeline, noting sources regardless of where they came from. I used everything at first — Wikipedia, folk art websites, online encyclopedias — I just needed a place to start. I followed up with more credible and scholarly books and magazine articles.

The events of Bill’s life were mostly consistent from source to source. It was the dates and other little inconsistencies that tripped me up. In the end, I relied on sources like the book Deep Blues: Bill Traylor, Self Taught Artist, written by Mary E. Lyons, and DEEP BLUES, BILL TRAYLOR 1854 To 1949, edited by Josef Helfenstein and Roman Kurzmeyer. Both books were well sourced, relied on census records, and used many of the same sources I used. I even found a copy of Collier’s Magazine from 1946, which featured an article about Bill Traylor and a wonderful photograph, “He Lost 10,000 Years,” by Allen Rankin (who is said to have questioned Bill at one time about the inspiration behind his drawings).

The biggest problem with my timeline was that it had an 85-year hole. Much was written about Bill after the age of 85. But not much was available about his life before that. I considered focusing the story around the four years Bill spent as a homeless street artist, avoiding dealing with his past. But I wanted more. I needed more. What led up to the day when Bill Traylor began to draw? What about his life influenced his art?

By studying Bill’s art, I found some of the answers I was looking for. Animals played a huge role in Bill’s life. So much so that he often portrayed them larger than the humans in his drawings. Images of animated animals in humorous situations were common in his art. Another common image was of men behind mules plowing. Obviously Bill Traylor had spent many days with a mule and a plow. I laughed out loud when I came across a statement he’d made about a stubborn mule: “Minute he sees a plow he start swinging back . . . Git’s dat pride from his mama.” That quote really captured Bill’s personality, and I knew it had to include it in the story.

While Bill’s art doesn’t reveal much about his own religious beliefs, worship services show up in his art. Drawings of top-hat-wearing preachers with outstretched hands, encircled by worshippers were the subject of a few pieces of Bill’s art.

Exciting events were another common theme in Bill’s art. He often portrayed lively and rowdy play between human figures and animals in and around homes or other structures. The scenes were animated, complex, mysterious, and symbolic. It was fascinating to study and provided a glimpse into Bill’s life on the farm.

Dialog was a major issue, but finding words linked to a reliable source wasn’t too much of a challenge. Charles Shannon, the painter and photographer who discovered Bill’s talent, often sat alongside him, observing and listening to comments as Bill created his art. In fact, it was Charles who later titled many of Bill’s works based upon those comments. One of my favorite quotes was when Bill said, “I wanted to be plowing so badly today, I draw’d me a man plowing.” Makes sense! It speaks to how much Bill missed his life on the farm.”

Telling the story of Bill Traylor was a challenge. It was like assembling a puzzle with missing pieces. Some of those pieces would never be found. But thankfully through the use of Bill Traylor’s own art, I was able to reconstruct an accurate picture of the life of an incredible man.

(Artwork from the book, It Jes’ Happened, copyright R. Gregory Christi.)

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Our guest blogger today is Don Tate. Don is  the illustrator of numerous picture books. He is also a debut author for the book It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, the story of a slave turned outsider artist. You can connect with Don Tate at http://dontate.com/contact/

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.

One comment

  1. Wendy Stephens

    I bought a copy of this goregous and fascinating book at the Frist Museum, where it was on sale in association with the Gee’s Bend exhibit this summer. It is an incredible book and an even more interesting story — thanks for working through it for us!

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