Bisa Butler is a compelling storyteller that paints intricate stories utilizing fiber and quilts. Each layer of fabric is akin to a layer of glaze. The subject of her stories are black children and adults whose stories may have never been told or have been pushed to the side. In order to bring other peoples’ stories to life, she began by tuning into hers.
Her passion for working with fiber revealed itself once she began graduate school. She had studies painting in undergrad but felt a lack of inspiration upon transitioning to grad school. The creation of a landscape quilt led her to tap her childhood memory of her mother and grandmother making clothing and home décor daily and in her presence. Their powerful influence was a statement to magic of making something from nothing with her hands. As a quilt maker, she can make create beautiful objects by her children thereby carrying on her familial traditions and those of her African American heritage.
Her artistic process starts with a portrait, which is a behavior that originate in her childhood. Studying photographs in photo albums of their family was an activity she shared with her grandmother. Her inquisitive interest in portraits is what drives her to create such dynamic art. She began with creating stories based upon her family members. Today, she invests time searching through public databases for photographs of people that spark her interest. Potential characters for stories that reflect life; colorful, layered in nuance and textured.
According to Butler, “When you see vintage lace and aged satin it tells you the story of delicacy and refinement of times gone by. When you see African printed cotton and mud cloth it tells the story of my ancestral homeland and the cradle of civilization. When you see multi-colored organza and netting layered you are being told a story of something or someone colorful and multifaceted.” Her materials are stunning, expensive and emotive.
Quilt making is a global process that traces back to 3400 B.C.E. as a remedy for keeping warm. Ms. Butler explains that “African Americans originally quilted out of the necessity to stay warm in places unlike their homelands and we had very little resources. Our quilts were made of patches because those small rags were all we had to spare in a time when we wore our clothes until they literally fell apart.”
The magnificence of Ms. Butler’s talent is obvious. If you are fortunate to be in New York, it will be on display in her solo show called The Storm, the Whirlwind and the Earthquake at the Claire Oliver Gallery in New York from February 29 to April 18, 2020.
All images ©Bisa Butler. Featured image “The Equestrian,” 2019 (quilted and appliquéd cotton, wool and chiffon | 43″ x 68″ x 1″)
“I Am Not Your Negro,” 2019 (quilted and appliquéd cotton, wool and chiffon | 50″ x 72″ x 1″)