This illuminating documentary explores the life of a unique American artist, a man with a remarkable and unlikely biography. Bill Traylor was born into slavery in 1853 on a cotton plantation in rural Alabama. After the Civil War, Traylor continued to farm the land as a sharecropper until the late 1920s. Aging and alone, he moved to Montgomery and worked odd jobs in the thriving segregated black neighborhood. A decade later, in his late 80s, Traylor became homeless and started to draw and paint, both memories from plantation days and scenes of a radically changing urban culture.
Having witnessed profound social and political change during a life spanning slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and the Great Migration, Traylor devised his own visual language to translate an oral culture into something original, powerful, and culturally rooted. He made well over a thousand drawings and paintings between 1939-1942. This colorful, strikingly modernist work eventually led him to be recognized as one of America’s greatest self-taught artists and the subject of a Smithsonian retrospective.
Using historical and cultural context, BILL TRAYLOR: CHASING GHOSTS brings the spirit and mystery of Traylor’s incomparable art to life. Making dramatic and surprising use of tap dance and evocative period music, the film balances archival photographs and footage, insightful perspectives from his descendents, and Traylor’s striking drawings and paintings to reveal one of America’s most prominent artists to a wide audience.
“Critic’s Pick! A sincere, nourishing account of the artist. Wolf makes excellent use of photo and film archives, laying out the territory that fed Traylor’s vision.”
"Brings the spirit and mystery of Traylor’s art to life and shines a spotlight on a creative gift that was long ignored and marginalized."
“Introduces to a wider audience one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, whose life traversed slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration and each’s accompanying tumultuous social and political upheaval.”
"Jeffrey Wolf’s exceptional documentary Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts seeks to tells its subject’s story in a deeply personal way, while also pulling back when needed to contextualize his work."
“Speaks volumes on the life and times of the artist. The pieces themselves… lend those ghosts of his past a persistent, ethereal relevance.”
"A spry and inventive account of extraordinary transcendence. Traylor was both an artist and a historian, and Chasing Ghosts is appropriately both a work of art and history—a beautiful film with a sense of swing and soul."
"Bill Traylor’s art speaks to the universal language of humanity – a cry for justice, dignity and resilience."
“A celebration of art and the best of humanity transcending poverty, racism and despair.”
“In Traylor, we can see the power of individual voice… the work is transcendent and essential.”
“An extraordinary artist… Traylor’s pictures stamp themselves on your eye and mind.”
Russell G. Jones
Jason Samuels Smith
Directed by Jeffrey Wolf
Produced by Sam Pollard (Executive Producer) , Jeffrey Wolf, Daphne McWilliams, Jeany Nisenholz-Wolf and Fred Barron