Painting a Hidden Life
By Mechal Sobel
256 pages; Louisiana State University
His studio was a street corner in Montgomery, Alabama. His canvases were weathered sheets of cardboard. Folk artist Bill Traylor, whose work now hangs in major museums and galleries, was old and homeless, painting outdoors, when a young local artist named Charles Shannon discovered him and began to champion his work. Traylor made more than 1,200 paintings, as enigmatic as hieroglyphs, as charged with social protest as the "bitter blues" lyrics of the 1930s and '40s. In Painting a Hidden Life, historian Mechal Sobel probes the life and cryptic imagery of this onetime slave whose work defied the constraints of the Jim Crow era—a raging fire of a man who believed that art could conjure a better world.