ALABAMA FOLK ARTIST BRINGS BEAUTY AND CREATIVITY TO THE BLACK BELT
Words by Cara D. Clark
Photos by Sarah Watlington
It’s a rare thing to know you’re in the right place at the right time and following your destiny. Trés Taylor is among the few who feels exactly that way. It wasn’t always the case for the Alabama native, who began his professional career as a biochemist, a vocation that took him from the University of Alabama at Birmingham to San Diego, California. When he moved in 1996 to further his career in science, he felt anything but enchantment on the West Coast.
“I felt lonely and sad and disconnected,” Taylor says. “I had lived all over the world, but the only place I’ve ever experienced culture shock was in California. I missed the South—my family, my friends—and I wasn’t happy with my work.”
During a return to Birmingham on Christmas vacation, Trés and a friend decided on a whim to visit all folk artists in Alabama, and they ended up seeing 10 to 12 acclaimed artists. It was transformative.
“That experience of going into these people’s homes and studios and seeing how they were living and making art from things people threw away, had an impact on me,” Trés says. “Being around this powerful art, and being in the presence of these joyful people, had a profound impact.”
The last artist the two met during that winter sojourn was RA Miller, who lived in a tar paper shack made magical by a charismatic character who filled the structure and elements, including nearly 100 whirligigs around the yard.
“He was a gentle, wonderful spirit, with art that was very childlike,” Trés says. “I remember taking his picture and laughing and cutting up with him. I told him I wished I could do what he could do.”
The artist responded that Trés was a folk artist too. And now, in retrospect, Trés likes to think at that moment, the aging artist spiritually, invisibly, handed him a paintbrush.
With an indelible memory of that magical time, Trés returned to San Diego in 1999 and to work that had become a monotonous routine. As he rode his bike through Balboa Park, the site of many renowned museums, he saw a pile of scrap wood stacked in front of one. Tying it to the back of his bicycle, the revolution of the wheels taking him home set about a revolution in every sense of the word.
With his first painting, he revolted against an unfulfilling career and set his course on a journey to transform his life, though it would be years before he saw that clearly.
What Trés did was take leftover cans of house paint to create an artwork of a man and woman flying in opposite directions with a heart between the two.
“It was so cathartic to make that painting,” Trés says. “It changed me.”
Trés describes that moment of enlightenment as a place where eternity is—a time when you’re in neither the past nor the present but completely in the “now,” a philosophy he learned from a monk. It’s not a place to which you can direct someone, but once found, the healing nature of being there calls to you.
“It was medicine for me,” Trés says. “When you find something that feels so good, you do it again.”
While Trés’ fame wasn’t immediate, the wife of his mentor bought his first work for $100, saying she recognized an investment when she saw one.
And while Trés wasn’t convinced he was creating masterpieces, he was confident of how it felt to hold the brush and transfer images from mind to matter.
“My life was filled with therapy,” he says. “I painted and painted, and I loved it. I joked that a paintbrush fell out of the sky and hit me on the head. I had no intention of ever selling anything.”
The prolific artist reached a point where he had paintings scattered all over the floor of his bedroom to dry. At one point, he painted so many that his bed was surrounded, and he had to exit through a window to avoid stepping on his art.
“I was climbing out of a window to go to a day job to be a biochemist,” Trés says. “I loved science, but it didn’t bring me joy like this does. It had been a long time—maybe since childhood—that I really understood what the word joy means, and I was understanding that through self-expression.”
His heart wasn’t in his “real” job, so he committed to concluding a six-month project and then quitting. At the end of that time, he talked to his daughter just as she was graduating from college and told her he quit his job.
Her response? “Dad, you’ll be poor for the rest of your life, so take me to Europe this summer.” The two embarked on a tour abroad, visiting all the art museums they could find in that month and a half.
“It was an awesome time,” Trés says. “We landed in Atlanta and didn’t have enough money to get home, so we both hitched and caught a ride in an 18-wheeler.”
The revolution was well and truly underway. While he had been painting in San Diego and accruing an ever-growing collection of his own work, he decided to sell the folk art works he’d collected from the South. When the gallery owner came to peruse his art collection, she was intrigued by those works that accumulated in his bedroom—his works—and wanted to show them as well.
Within the first week, the gallery owner began selling his work, one to a woman in Beverly Hills and three to a man in Japan. The year was 2000, and the Internet was young with only the visionaries among us anticipating its future. But by connecting to the collector in Japan via what would become the World Wide Web, Trés was put in touch with the Japanese collector who offered to fly him overseas to paint.
All along the way, a convergence of signs and serendipitous moments kept pointing Trés in the direction of that sense of elation that came from painting. The accompanying success seemed secondary to that satisfaction of knowing fate or faith or both were taking him where he was meant to go.
He paraphrases Goethe: “Once you find that single purpose for which you are committed and devoted, invisible hands open doors for you,” which seemed to be happening at every turn in his life.
“I’m living proof,” Trés says. “Not even in my own calculations could I have made these things happen. I realized something big and spiritual was occurring.”
Trés, whose work to the Japanese was reminiscent of a famous painter, Shiko Munakata, pursued his art in Japan for three months, piquing the interest of the locals and inspiring a television interview. When his work was shown in a gallery, a newspaper article further spread the word of the American artist and his unusual talent.
After returning to America and continuing his work, he was invited back to Japan by a wood-fire potter, who wanted help putting together a show. And that was when the wheels screeched to a halt. As Trés suffered his first encounter with what some would call writer’s block, he experienced a spiritual connection with nature and with the hawk that was again transformative, bringing new light and life to his art and a sense of affirmation to his soul. He was guided by his spirit animal, the hawk, and other harbingers from nature, but that’s a story for another day.
Now, having settled with his wife Helene in Birmingham and facing the harried pace of putting together gallery shows, Trés has set his sights on the next evolution of the revolution. And he’s traveling with his fanciful, fictional companion, the jubilant monk William Guadalupe, patron saint of birdsongs, sunflowers, and the broken-hearted.
Trés, who has painted on everything from rice paper to tar paper, is at a place and space to give back on a large scale—mural scale—and his ambition is to bring together artists and communities to paint murals across the Black Belt, this time on cinder block and brick.
“I’ve learned through this process that with creativity, we are like lanterns,” Trés says. “We have the ability to turn on or off. Creativity is that light. If you open yourself to the signs around you, you allow the current to come through and turn that creativity on.”
The same compulsion that turned his light on and drove him to paint is driving him to community service in “The rEVOLVution of Joy.” Just as joy evolved in his life through art, he wants to share it unsparingly through his mural project, the ebullient monk of Irish and Spanish descent who rolls along on his bicycle casting sunflowers and wildflowers, about to enliven the people around him. The renegade holy man is sometimes in a boat or on a donkey. There’s no predicting what he’ll do next, but he is spreading mischief and flowers along the way.
Trés says the murals are his giveback. “I’ve been making art for 20 years, and it has been a beautiful, incredible journey of meeting people and being able to support a family with something you love doing,” he says. “Now that I look at the beginning of my last quarter, I’m seriously thinking it’s time to give back. I’ve been so blessed with these beautiful 20 years.”
By going into small towns throughout the Black Belt and outlining his murals, he’s inviting people to draw together and help to color them in—anyone who can hold a paintbrush, from five-year-olds to 90-year-olds, and all in between.
Trés has painted murals in downtown Birmingham and in Selma, as well as in Greensboro, and he’s only just getting started on this new journey in a life filled with cultural expeditions.
“I think the Black Belt is a treasure,” Trés says. “There’s so much history, and it’s culturally rich. It needs to be appreciated by more people. I see this mural project as having great potential for economic possibilities. Artists could come in and create a mural trail. It’s like planting a seed. I have a vision for other artists to create murals on buildings involving people from the town and outside the towns.”
Trés wants to plant the seeds from Mississippi to Georgia and all points in between, creating enough murals by enough artists to bring people off Interstates 59 and 65 to enjoy the cultural trail, and in turn creating tourist commerce that could lead to new restaurants, shops, and lodging. The project would be reminiscent of Wynwood, the artistic revival district in Philadelphia that transformed old warehouse space into enlivened property.