Around the Press in 80 Books: Painting a Hidden Life

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Editor Neal Novak writes about Painting a Hidden Life.

Painting a Hidden Life

When I first started to paint several years ago, I sought out the advice of my uncle, a wonderfully talented artist who has been paying the bills for years through gallery sales. “Don’t find your voice too soon,” he cautioned as he handed me a ragged book full of Richard Diebenkorn’s abstract landscapes. After a year of struggles, false starts, and gentle admonishments from my supportive my wife—“I love your work, but do you have to drip dioxazine purple on the dog?”—I finally began to understand just what he meant: be patient and enjoy becoming an artist.

Reading any and every art book I could get my hands on, I was thrilled when I learned the Press planned to publish Mechal Sobel’s Painting a Hidden Life: The Art of Bill Traylor. A sharecropper in rural Alabama for the better part of his life, Traylor moved to Montgomery in 1928, where for ten years he often sat on a street corner and created spare but powerful paintings that offered narratives of black life in the time of Jim Crow. Traylor’s work can be downright grim: rabid dogs, gun-toting hicks, and violent lynchings all figure prominently. At the same time, I can’t help but see a playful side in Traylor that evokes Matisse’s dancers and Miró’s surrealist figuration. It’s doubtful Traylor ever saw the work of these masters—Montgomery does bus boycotts better than modern art—but like all great artists, Traylor created a unique visual language that tells a complex story of a particular time and place.

I’m finally finding my voice as a painter. And though I might skew more Diebenkorn than Traylor, any progress I’ve made has come from a fuller appreciation of folk art and its ability to express ideas that are rarely found inside the walls of any gallery.

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