Some people are simply compelled to create art, caring nothing for art history, critical theory, or career strategies. Bill Traylor was born a slave in 1854; after a lifetime as a cotton laborer, destitute and living on a Montgomery, Alabama, sidewalk, he began drawing. He was 83, and sold his work for nickels. Executed on throwaway pieces of cardboard, his compositions are astonishingly astute: The hoof of a silhouetted bull rests on the convergence of two die-cut curves, which also echo its horns; a long rip provides a fuzzy horizon line implying vast distance while emphasizing the beast’s imposing grandeur. Black Jesus, his splayed arms as rigid and blunt as two-by-fours, is seemingly half interred—a muddy rectangle reaches waist high on an indigo body torqued with anguish.
At age 59, handyman William Edmondson felt divinely inspired to start carving sculptures from damaged limestone windowsills, steps, and curbs. Born in Nashville in 1874, one year before Tennessee passed the nation’s inaugural Jim Crow segregation laws, he became, in 1937, the first African American to have a solo show at MOMA. His Noah’s ark is chiseled from four blocks—two rough-hewn, listing slabs inset with a smaller, leveled rectangle displaying shallowly carved windows and doors, capped by a peaked pilothouse—a touching evocation of God’s upright vessel cutting through stormy seas.
Unknown to each other but bound by the common strictures of the segregated South, Traylor and Edmondson helped define an American modernism they were completely unaware of. Sometimes called “folk” or “outsider” artists, their passions transcend the most basic labels, a point illustrated by contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall’s fascinating catalog essay, which quotes Edmondson referring to curators: “I didn’t know I was no artist until them folks came and told me I was.”