Art star Bisa Butler’s quilted portraits are sublime in scale and concept—life-sized likenesses honoring Black subjects based on black and white photos from around 1850 to the present. Her portraits burst with a kaleidoscope of electric colors and rich textures, each hue representing a different emotion or theme. Whether the subjects are historical or contemporary… famous (Frederick Douglass, Nina Simone, Lauren Hill, Jean-Michel Basquiat) or unknown… Butler produces them with the same intimate care and reverence.
To be in the presence of her work feels sacred, and Butler has helped elevate people’s perception of quilting, from a “lowly” woman’s craft to fine art. She has been commissioned to make quilted portraits for the covers of Time, Essence and #Metoo Movement founder Tara Burke’s memoir Unbound. She has had works shown and in the permanent collections at institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Art and solo shows at institutions like Katonah Museum of Art. And most recently, Jeffrey Deitch Gallery hosted “The World Is Yours,” an exhibition of Butler pieces inspired by hip-hop artist Nas.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Butler at her studio at Mana Contemporary, a sprawling art center in Jersey City, NJ.
Your cover for Tarana Burke’s memoir Unbound spoke to me, as someone who was part of the #MeToo movement. How did you end up working on that particular project?
Tarana’s editor reached out to me and said, “Tarana likes your work, and this is a long shot, but is there any chance you would consider designing the cover for her memoir?” And I said, “Absolutely.” To do something for Tarana after she’s done something for so many women who felt they had the blame and that they needed to hide what had happened to them—it just meant a lot to be able to do something for her.
Can you walk me through your artistic process?
The first thing I do is peruse photographs to get an idea and allow myself to be drawn to an image. I prefer black and white photos because I can see a grayscale. I’ll blow the photo up, print it in my studio and sketch on top of the picture with a sharpie, identifying that value scale. What’s the lightest light? What’s the darkest dark? And then I make shapes I can cut out. Each shape will become another piece of fabric. At that point, I choose my palette, which takes the longest because I’m using color to express emotion in the way of modernist painters like Picasso and Matisse. Blue can represent calm or serenity, and red can represent fire or passion.
I also want a pattern to be in there as well. A lot of African fabrics have patterns of folk tales, wives’ tales and allegories. For instance, there’s a fabric known as ‘big lips.’ If I want that fabric in there, I’m trying to say that this person’s full lips are beautiful. I’m thinking about the color and the pattern and the meaning at the same time. After I’ve cut and arranged everything, I lightly tack it with fabric glue and a gazillion pins. I could have a base fabric of red, but everything on top of it could be ten or fifteen layers of other textures, colors and shades because I’m trying to make it look three-dimensionally modeled. And then I load it onto my sewing machine.
Your husband, DJ John Butler, played a song by Nas that inspired ‘The World is Yours’ at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery. How did that come about?
Nas has this song “One Mic.” And I wanted my work to feel like that song. I feel like the hip hop generation (the rappers, the producers—there’s something about musicians) have their finger on the pulse, and they’re able to make your pulse speed up and go back down. In Nas’s song, he rhymes really slowly. I know that he listened to the sounds of the street, or the M or A trains. As he was rapping, it was almost like he was running through the streets of New York, and then it was like somebody was chasing him. His cadence was way up, and then he brought it back down. I wanted to make my artwork as visceral as that song. I want people to feel something, and I want to be able to control it like a maestro. It made me start listening to Nas again.
How did you bring that cadence into your show?
I’m trying to bring people into my world so they can feel the humanity. The song came from our social status right now in this country. People are against each other, and they’re getting real tribal savage: ‘You’re not like me. You’re other.’ And so I wanted to convey the idea that you feel what I feel. The world is ours. We don’t have to fight each other to death. It belongs to all of us, and we should respect each other. Part of that is understanding other people’s emotions and realizing they’re just like yours. And Nas takes you with him on this journey through New York as he knew it. And I want my exhibits to be able to take people on a journey as I know it. These are the people I know. This is what Black people look like. This is what we feel like. And you’re going to see echoes of your own family there.
Tell me about the marching band that closed out your show at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery.
We had the Malcolm X Shabazz High School Band from Newark, NJ come through. It wasn’t planned that everybody would just start marching behind the kids, but that was the atmosphere. And then it was like a Pied Piper thing. People started coming from all over, and they were marching right behind the kids. By the time they came around to the gallery, it was magic. I never considered what would happen if you played jazzy drums in SoHo on a warm, sunny day in the spring. The kids marched right into the gallery up onto the main stage. You could see they were so proud. It was so good!
In your most recent show at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery, the photos you worked from were more contemporary. How did that come about?
That happened during lockdown. I found myself in a conversation where I was talking to Beyonce’s mother and MC Hammer on Clubhouse—I think we were talking about NFTs. MC Hammer is very active in the digital art world. There were ten panelists and three hundred people listening in who could leave comments. That connectivity made me braver because there are living photographers whom I’ve wanted to ask, “Could I create a piece based on your work?” But I was always too shy.
I had always been fascinated by what happened before, but then here we were in this moment where what was happening in front of us was insane. And I wondered, why am I ignoring the now? Let me pay attention to my own story instead of who inspired my grandparents.
Maybe you had to start with the past to get to the present?
It definitely helped to create portraits of folks like Harriet Tubman when she was in her early forties or Frederick Douglass when he was twenty-nine. They seem like mythical figures, but they’re human beings, too. When I was creating a portrait of Frederick Douglass, I had to think about the thoughts that went through his head. Frederick Douglass is something else because he’s a force of nature freeing himself, escaping and teaching himself to read. He became the most photographed person, even more than Queen Victoria, in the 19th Century. Looking into his eyes, I realized there was so much more that I was not getting. I mean, when do we really look at other people’s photos for a hundred hours? I could see a spot in his eye. Then I read in his autobiography that he was beaten once and almost lost his left eye. But the spot was still there, the burst capillary. It was an intimate and deep conversation with a person who had a very different life than mine.
When you went to Howard University, you discovered a different way of painting. Can you talk about that?
The head of the department of art, Jeff Donaldson, founded a revolutionary Black Power art collective in 1960s Chicago called AfriCOBRA. My professors were the ones who laid the groundwork for a lot of the colors you see in my work because they created a new palette: Kool-Aid. Before that, the European painting tradition would’ve been the standard for art schools across all of the United States. Kool-Aid had multiple meanings. It was cool, as in we wanted our palette to match the colors people were wearing in the sixties—bright orange, yellow, bright green, bright red, DayGlo—all the colors turned up. But also, we wanted the colors of the African continent. You had students like my dad coming from a newly liberated Africa. You started seeing Nigerian kids on campus and Ghanaian kids on campus. Also, Black Americans were traveling to Africa to study, and they saw the colors of the marketplace. I think Kool-Aid was part of art being for the people and not just in museums and galleries. They wanted ordinary people to have art in their homes and to understand it.
After graduating, you earned a Master of Arts at Montclair State University. Is that where you learned to quilt?
Montclair State’s core included fiber arts. It was there that I realized I didn’t need a canvas. This was the first time I could create art that suited my lifestyle. When I was a young mother, John worked all day and I was home with the kids. I needed to have art I could work on for hours with my kids right there, and quilting was that.
I read that your first quilted portrait was of your grandmother. What inspired that?
I painted a portrait of her when I was in grad school. Her health was ailing. She said, “You made me look like an old, old lady.” She hated it. So I made a quilted portrait of her wedding photo [Francis and Violette (Grandparents)] and she loved it.
Did she hang it on the wall or did she use it as a quilt?
She couldn’t get out of bed. Her name was Violette, so I had to use a purple violet fabric. But the quilt wasn’t that big. She would lay it across her legs. It was in tissue paper so when people came over, she would take the tissue paper off. She wanted everybody who came to sit by her bedside to look at this quilt.
Tell me about your quilted portrait of the mother and daughter, Colored Entrance. While the colors you chose are uplifting, I’m haunted by the sign.
That particular photo was taken in 1956, and Gordon Parks was using color photo film, which was new at the time. The colors were soft, pastel and grainy, which influenced the colors I chose. I chose an orange and white floral background. My niece and I noticed it looked like a creamsicle. It was like that orangey pastel cream. Because that’s what the first impression of that photo is. It’s a lovely Sunday or Saturday afternoon, and a woman and child are shopping on the avenue. They’re dressed very ladylike. The little girl’s in a lace dress. The woman is in heels. Everything about them is so gentile and feminine. But then there’s this huge neon sign glaring above their heads that says: ‘Colored Entrance.’ So that’s the horror aspect—it’s like a jump scare in a horror movie. And the sad part is that was the reality of American life.
After you graduated from Montclair State University, you taught high school art in Newark. I read that you were friends with a librarian who passed away, and that’s when you left teaching. Was that a lightbulb moment for you?
It was. Around that time, the librarian at the high school I worked at passed in her sleep, and she didn’t have a lot of family. My principal had a moment of silence for her, but these are teenage kids. It was supposed to be a minute, but they only managed 30 seconds. Within a few months, they’d hired another librarian. With my friend’s passing, I realized that the sun will still rise, the moon will still set and life goes on. So, what do you want to do with your life? Because if you wink out of existence, they’re going on without you. It was around that time that I decided I had to find a way to be an artist full-time.
Tell me about your upcoming museum shows.
I’m currently preparing for a three-museum tour of a solo show that will begin in Washington, DC, and I’ll be the first Black woman to have solo exhibitions at two of the venues. It is a show that will have pieces from when I first started making quilts in 2001 all the way up to the present day. I think there will be about thirty quilts in the show.
In terms of the political climate in America, it feels like we’re moving backward at times. How should we process this?
It scares me like everyone else, but I think that we have to remember that there were other times in the world and in this country where some people were actually enslaved. Some people were told by law, “You’re not a human being. You’re three-fifths of a human being. You don’t own your children. You don’t own your land. You don’t own your own body.” One thing Frederick Douglass said when he escaped was, “I’m a thief. I stole this head and these hands and these legs.” And that was his own self. If he could feel that there was better and more in this world and that there were good people, we can’t give up.