We’ve had a bit of a break on the blog from sharing incredible fiber artists, but we are back with an American artist that I discovered through a friend, and WOW. I was blown away the first time I saw photos of Bisa Butler's quilt portraits. I kept asking myself “Is that just fabric? Certainly she has painted on top of fabric? Right??? No?! How did she do that?”
In this continuation of our Fab Fiber Artist series I won't be able to tell you exactly how Bisa does what she does, but I can tell you a bit about her as an artist and what inspired her to share beauty and storytelling in the creative way she does today.
Broom Jumpers (2019), cotton, silk, wool and velvet, 87" x 52 1/4"; Source: artmuseum.mtholyoke.edu
In case you don’t even remember that there was a series of Fab Fiber Artists on the blog, you can read about Judith Scott, Nancy Crow, Marti Mitchell, Rachel Clark and Faith Ringgold for more fiber inspiration. (Fun fact! Bisa mentions fellow fiber artist, Faith Ringgold, as having a huge influence on her approach to business and art.)
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Bisa Butler: From Paint to Fibers
Bisa was born the youngest of three kids in Orange, New Jersey and grew up in South Orange, tinkering, drawing and creating from a young age. She belongs to a lineage of sewers. Her mother, grandmother and aunts could all sew, focusing mainly on clothes and items for the home. As a young art student Bisa was interested in fashion and even designed and sewed herself a dress for her 20th birthday.
She was happy with the dress, but when Bisa showed her grandmother, her grandmother lovingly explained how it wasn't sewn correctly and then proceeded to stay up all night deconstructing and properly re-sewing the dress for her birthday. If that is not true love, I don’t know what is!
Years later Bisa earned her BFA in painting from Howard University. While completing her degree, pregnant with her first daughter, she found that she could no longer stomach the smell of her paints. Unsure how to finish her graduation thesis, one of her professors encouraged her to include fabric.
Her professor noted that she took such care to dress with a certain aesthetic, that maybe there was more for her to explore in her connection to fabric. And so, Bisa completed her final undergraduate works by layering fabric onto her paintings.
After the birth of her daughter, she was increasingly concerned about the use of toxic paints, and took a break from painting, wondering if she would be taking an indefinite break from being an artist all together.
However, while working to earn a masters degree in art education at Montclair University, Bisa took a fibers course which led to her very first quilt. (How exciting!!) And just like the rest of us quilt lovers, she found herself falling more and more in love with the process of quilting.
Quilt Portraits: Sewing Stories
Later in life, Bisa's beloved grandmother (Remember the one who taught her the importance of proper garment sewing construction?) became ill. As a way to connect with her ailing grandma, Bisa used the sewing techniques she learned and made her first portrait quilt by recreating a photobooth picture of her young grandparents.
Although the conception of Bisa's quilt portraits is rooted in close ties to her family, her connection to sewing extends beyond her own personal family history, to the history of African Americans brought to the US as slaves.
“African Americans have been quilting since we were brought to this country and needed to keep warm. Enslaved people were not given large pieces of fabric and had to make do with the scraps of cloth that were left after clothing wore out. From these scraps the African American quilt aesthetic came into being.”
[Quote sourced from openculture.com]
Asantewa (2020), Cotton, silk, wool and velvet quilted and appliqué, 52" x 88"; Source: claireoliver.com
Bisa began creating more quilt portraits, initially focusing on family and friends, connecting her art with the people in her life. Bisa’s mother was from New Orleans and her father had immigrated from Ghana as a young man.
Bisa wanted to use her father’s father as a subject, but had no photos of him. She decided to use a photo of an unknown, elderly Ghanian man for her inspiration, which led Bisa along a new path— telling the stories of the unknown.
Three Kings (2018), quilted and appliquéd cotton, wool and chiffon, 95" x 72"; Source: claireoliver.com
“That sparked a curiosity in me to discover more unnamed African and African American people and create narratives about them based on what I could ascertain. Now my subjects are mostly entirely unknown to me and I feel like it is my duty to bring as many of these unnamed peoples photos to the forefront. Maybe their own relatives will recognize them, and maybe people will see these ordinary folks as deserving of a spotlight, too.”
[Quote sourced from createmagazine.com]
Capturing the American Life
Bisa’s portraits are life-sized, resulting in the viewer being eye to eye with the subjects of her work. I have yet to see one of her quilts in person, but I can only imagine the intimacy that creates between the viewer and the subject.
While Bisa has created some portraits of well-known historical figures, such as Frederick Douglass, she mostly focuses on bringing unknown subjects to life, inspired by documentary photographs from the early 1900s. She takes ordinary, unknown people and brings them to life.
The Storm, The Whirlwind, and the Earthquake (2020), cotton, silk, wool and velvet, 50" x 85"; Source: claireoliver.com
“In my work I am telling the story— this African American side— of the American life. History is the story of men and women, but the narrative is controlled by those who hold the pen.”
[Quote sourced from claireoliver.com]
I’m so thankful we now have Bisa Butler adding new stories to the narrative, as the one who holds the pen, or thread, in this instance.
I Am Not Your Negro (2019), quilted and appliquéd cotton, wool and chiffon, 50″ x 72″; Source: mymodernmet.com
Layers and Layers of Detail
Bisa’s art training and expertise as a painter is evident in her mesmerizing work. The way she layers fabrics, as a painter would layer paints, creates depth and eye-catching imagery. As a quilter, my love of fabric runs deep, so I can find myself getting lost gazing at the incredible fabrics in each piece.
“Many of the African fabrics that I use have specific meaning. The manufacturers send their fabrics to be sold in the open-air markets in Africa where the local women name them based on what the patterns remind them of in their culture. For instance a fabric that has images of a grade school primer on it is called ‘ABCD’ and men and women wear it to symbolize that they are literate and value education.
A fabric called ‘Jumping Horse’ is used to symbolize the phrase ‘I Run Faster Than My Enemies,’ or in other words, the wearer triumphs over adversaries. I use prints like these to reinforce the narrative I am trying to tell with my portraits.
I also use silks, lace and velvet, which are traditional dressmaking fabrics because those are what my mother and grandmother used. I find that those type of fabrics help me communicate ideas; lace can make you think of something delicate, where as denim can make you think of durability.”
[Quote sourced from createmagazine.com]
Clearly with so many thoughtful details and intricate skills, these portraits transcend quilting to bring the viewer into a story of the past, present and future. Bisa Butler has shared that she can spend over a thousand hours on a single quilt. Can you believe the dedication? I will have to channel that motivation the next time it seems like my quilt just. won’t. end.
Dear Mama (2019), quilted and appliquéd cotton, wool and chiffon, 53" x 78"; Source: claireoliver.com
What's Bisa Butler Doing Now?
I have some very exciting news to share for those living in Chicagoland! November 14, 2020 - April 18, 2021 Bisa Butler will have a special exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago!! Ya'll, I can't EVEN contain myself! Desi and I like to visit AIC as much as possible and this will for sure be a highlight. I just hope I can keep him from touching the quilts...
If you aren't able to see her exhibit, thank goodness for the digital age, because there are some great ways to see her incredible portraits. You can take a virtual tour of her first solo exhibit, at the Katonah Museum of Art, over on the Claire Oliver Gallery site. You can also follow Bisa on Instagram to get a regular dose of her talent in your daily life. I’m excited to follow her and see how she continues to share her incredible talents with the world!
Have you seen any of Bisa Butler’s work in person? Tell me about it in the comments!
Update! After much waiting and lots of anticipation in March of 2021, my whole family (even Joanna in utero) got to experience the Bisa Butler exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Comparing these pics of Desi (they are about a year apart) kids sure do grow up fast!
And here's what I look like at 37 weeks pregnant!
Since that first picture of Desi at the Art Institute was taken, his vocabulary has much expanded. He is now learning to string words into sentences, however quite frequently he's overcome by emotions and thoughts and words and is left urgently pointing at something and can only sputter out, "THIS, mommy! THIS!"
As minimal as that sentence is, I usually get what he's trying to say. I love museums and am not one to be brought to tears while visiting them, but these quilts by Bisa Butler were like nothing I've ever experienced. They left me feeling so full of emotions and thoughts and words, I truly am speechless. All I can say is, "THIS!"