Some artists are natural storytellers. Their works transcend the gallery space; one can imagine their painted figures swaying in an 80s nightclub or strolling to the market hundreds of years ago. Storytelling artworks prompt questions about the figures’ time and space. Who are these people? What do they love? What problems do they face?
Billy White and Bill Traylor are both artist-storytellers, building distinctive narratives through their prolific art practices. Billy White takes a bold and emotional approach, using thick planes of acrylic paint to form raw portraits of isolated characters. Bill Traylor works smaller, using discarded materials to create a visual record of his surroundings in Jim Crow-era America. Both artists pulled from radically different life experiences to inform their works shown at Adams and Ollman, but they find common ground in their uniquely honest depictions of the human experience.
Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development (NIAD), a progressive art studio in Richmond, California, supports the careers of artists with disabilities. Billy White, a Black artist in his mid-50s, has worked in the NIAD studio for 26 years. White’s traumatic brain injury, caused by an automobile accident in childhood, informs his affinity for Van Gogh; he feels they’ve faced comparable hardships. Despite his setbacks, White now has dozens of exhibitions under his belt. That artistic confidence comes across clearly in his series of eight untitled paintings at Adams and Ollman.
White’s paintings are coarse and direct. The intuitive nature of his painting process makes it clear that the viewer is being granted a glimpse directly into his colorful interior realm. White seemingly ignores current trends in painting, yet he creates with a self-taught physicality that a contemporary artist with formal education would strive to reach. His figures evoke emotions that are difficult to describe. White paints raw close-up portraits of men (or figures that appear masculine), forging unspoken visual connections between masculinity, honesty, and vulnerability. His openness is refreshing.
Pop culture plays an important role in White’s paintings, and his references are idiosyncratic—on one painting, the name WILLIE MAYS is scrawled, presumably depicting the former baseball player; on another is ARMAND ROULIN, likely referring to an obscure figure from a series of Van Gogh paintings. While all of White’s paintings are untitled, each figure’s identity is forged through strong strokes of color. One wears a jaunty yellow crown. Another is starkly white-faced against a sickly green background, creating unease. Although White references pop culture, his paintings feel more personal than political or cultural. His loose, vigorous, and character-driven painting style is informed by his place in the world, conjuring associations with self-taught artists like Jimmy Lee Sudduth and Sister Gertrude Morgan.
Bill Traylor’s works are quieter, smaller, and more discreet than White’s, but contain a depth of historical narrative and power. Traylor was born into slavery in the 1850s and didn’t begin making art until age 85. During the 1930s and 40s, Traylor worked with found materials like cardboard, pencils, and poster paint to depict his world in Montgomery, Alabama, and his memories of life as a slave, later sharecropper, on a cotton plantation.
As one of the most celebrated self-taught artists of the 20th century, Traylor’s legacy is difficult to overstate. Traylor spent his entire life in the American South and was an eyewitness to incredible change: the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and the resulting Great Migration. He makes this complex history feel intimate and understandable with a lexicon of repeated figures, including people in profile, plants, and animals.
Traylor created over a thousand artworks before his death, but for the purposes of this review, I’ll focus on the three works on display at Adams and Ollman. Indeed, these pieces are an accurate reflection of Traylor’s overarching style. In Untitled (Woman with Purse and Umbrella), Traylor uses colored pencil and graphite to depict a silhouetted woman floating in space, with no background or horizon line, like a shadow puppet. She is the sole focus. The work feels like one small addition to a record of daily life in Montgomery. Most of Traylor’s works have this visual-diary feeling, unassuming and yet almost painfully true. The stark silhouette style of Traylor’s figures is tattooed on my memory long after viewing them.
Untitled (Blue Man, Red Dog) features an elongated, curved man rendered in blue alongside a sprightly crimson dog. When multiple figures appear in a Traylor work, it resonates like an ancient cave painting depicting a long-ago ritual, yet is grounded in a distinct Americana implied by his use of materials like poster paint and colored pencils. Traylor’s novel understanding of the world around him comes across in his non-hierarchical depictions of animals, as in Untitled (Brown Rabbit, Brown Dog); both animals are the same size and color, again floating in empty space.
Billy White and Bill Traylor tell stories creatively, but never forsake honesty. Their depictions of humanity and day-to-day life reveal specific narratives that often go untold. White’s unique perceptions as an artist with a traumatic brain injury are brave and striking in acrylic paint. Traylor’s life as a Black man in pre-Civil Rights era America was undoubtedly marked by incredible trauma and strife, yet his works are transcendent in their sincerity and simple majesty. Viewing these artists side-by-side provides a rare opportunity to expand one’s perspective, and, ultimately, to grow.
Billy White and Bill Traylor were on view at Adams and Ollman from January 9 through February 6, 2021. Click here for information on their upcoming exhibits. The gallery is currently open by appointment only.