Is Greatness Possible When Nobody’s Even Paying Attention?

It’s hard to imagine acknowledging someone’s greatness today without first seeing or hearing it on YouTube, Instagram or Facebook.

Remember this concept, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

George Berkeley, philosopher, best raised the question with the idea of observation and perception, by asking “is sound only sound if one hears it? The same can be asked about someone’s personal greatness. Can one’s greatness be perceived as something special even if nobody even knows it exists?

I believe the answer is yes since greatness is first acknowledged by the individual and then recognition and success becomes its reward.   

Several months ago, I was researching older individuals who had made great contributions to our culture, especially at a later age in their lives. I compiled a list of names with the intentions of using them for some later projects and set it aside. It was just recently after viewing the episode on CBS This morning I discovered one of the segments, The folk art of Bill Traylor, and instantly recognized his name.       ( 

I paused the TV and then had to find my list which was buried under several piles of papers. My notes that I jotted down next to his name read,

  • artist, born a slave
  • folk artist
  • started painting at 85
  • died before true recognition 

I don’t recall my original reaction to his paintings and his story being any different from when I was watching his story on TV, with all the dramatic editing made to the aired segment, but what was most compelling was the words spoken at the end of the CBS segment from Leslie Umberger, curator for the exhibit of his works.

Thanks to Umberger who appreciated and showcased many of Traylor’s works was insightful in recognizing what the artist may have felt and said about himself.

“I was important. I have a point of view and I did matter.”

These words could have been spoken by the artist himself based upon the number of his works and the short period of time he completed them.

Traylor born into slavery, self-taught, and of profound talent with little recognition or any success during his lifetime still contributed and laid a foundation in making important history through his art. 

Traylor through his works was a true advocate for his himself and what his art represented.  He lived in a place and time in our history where he used his pencils and paints and created a place at the American artist table. Older and poor and uneducated but self-confident he knew he had something important to say.   

Bill Traylor like the tree falling in the forest made a loud sound. While few shared and appreciated his vision throughout his lifetime; what really counted was Traylor himself. “I was important. I have a point of view and I did matter.” echoes his greatness even at a time when others may not have been paying attention.

Bill Traylor  Bill Traylor painting

***Traylor embodies the very idea that the greatness of one's talent can be born at any age since -- as we age, we should continue to evolve, in all areas -JMD.

Please visit read Aging Creative’s spotlight story on Bill Traylor and see some of his paintings @

***Thanks to Leslie Umberger   

--JMD is the creator of Aging Creative


Thomas Kearns is a contributing writer for this piece.


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  • Robin Baum on

    The way you capture the stories and pull the reader into what seems like true inspiration of your writings is captivating.

  • JMD on

    Really enjoyed reading about R Traylor and writing this piece

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