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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755

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Bill Traylor, American, about 1854-1949

House with Figures and Animals (House with Figures; House with Figures and Snake)
Colored pencil and graphite on cardboard
Purchased through the Florence and Lansing Porter Moore 1937 Fund; D.2003.53


Bill Traylor was born into slavery, worked on a plantation most of his life, and only began to draw at the age of eighty-five, while he was homeless in Montgomery, Alabama. With an almost obsessive drive, he created about twelve hundred drawings in just a few years. This work conveys Traylor’s humorous storytelling abilities, masterful sense of design, and haunting vocabulary of stylized forms. He described the events in the top portion of his drawing: “Goose grabs little boy’s penis through fence / boy ties himself to the calf who dashes / through a hole in fence—little boy caught.” In the center, Traylor imaginatively conflated the front and side elevations of a propped-up “double pen” house—a common vernacular building type of the South—distinguishing its structural sections with different colors. The rattlesnake that undulates across the composition segregates the lower enigmatic vignette from the primary narrative and marks a distinct shift in mood, as we view a boy pointing to the crotch of a one-legged man. In Traylor’s work such recurring motifs as snakes, birds on roofs, birdlike people, and people chasing or probing each other with sticks suggest the artist’s relentless exploration of particular stories, observations, and perhaps spiritual metaphors. Although Traylor’s specific African roots remain undocumented, his motifs and photographic approach to design point to a deep familiarity with African visual, oral, and spiritual traditions. His stylized birds, for instance, recall the iron birds that crown Yoruba staffs honoring Orish Oko, the deity of farming. They could also represent messengers to the spirit world—or simply be mischievous farmyard chickens. Although embedded in the African American culture of the South, Traylor’s pictographic language is also elemental and timeless, recalling such diverse expressions as prehistoric cave drawings and modernism.

Last Updated: 4/14/09