A Life in Pictures

It Jes’ Happened:When Bill Traylor Started to Draw
By Don Tate
Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
(Lee and Low Books, 2012, New York, $17.95)

Folk artist Bill Traylor was eighty-five years old when he first picked up a pencil and started sketching, adding a new dimension to the expression late bloomer. Born into slavery in Alabama in the 1850s, Traylor spent most of his adult life as a sharecropper on the land of the people who had once owned him. In his eighties, the widowed Traylor moved to nearby Montgomery. He missed his farm and his family, and so, on discarded bits of cardboard, he began drawing animals and people though he had never done so in the past. One day, a young artist named Charles Shannon discovered Traylor sketching on the street. Admiring Traylor’s lively style, he brought him art supplies and even arranged for his work to be shown in galleries. Today, many critics consider Traylor one of America’s most important self-taught artists.

In It Jes’ Happened, Don Tate and illustrator R. Gregory Christie tell Bill Traylor’s remarkable story. The picture-book biography  celebrates both Traylor’s spontaneous foray into visual art and the simple joys that sustained him through a life of hardship. Quotes from Traylor suggest his humorous, cheerful personality, while Tate’s understated prose also poignantly conveys the pain and loneliness he endured. Christie’s illustrations, as lively as Traylor’s own work, evoke the artist’s simple folk art style and bring to life the comical chickens, stubborn mules, and Saturday night dances that delighted Traylor. Christie, too, develops Traylor’s character: in one spread, the elderly artist peers politely, but skeptically at the younger artist who has brought him art supplies. He is not sure what to make of this young man and his paints and papers.

It Jes’ Happened is an important book on a few levels. It introduces young readers to Traylor’s work, to folk art, and to the idea that people from even the most marginal backgrounds have talent and stories to share. And in the world of children’s books, in which elderly characters are wicked witches, cantankerous curmudgeons, or kind grandmas proffering cookies, It Jes’ Happened invites kids to imagine the rich past and feeling present their elders hold inside them. Inside them, inside each of us, are stories to be told, pictures to be painted.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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