STORIES WORTH A THOUSAND STITCHES by Ellen Donker
Bisa Butler transforms forgotten photos into beautiful quilts
When Bisa Butler posts a photo of her latest project on Instagram, she writes, “There is zero paint on this artwork.” That’s because people assume she’s showing a painting. But a closer look reveals that the rich colors and interesting patterns that bring her subjects alive come from materials such as cotton, silk and velvet. Butler is a quilter and she uses this medium to represent the stories of people that time has forgotten.
From the time she was a little girl, Butler has loved making art. She recalls spending most of her time at preschool in the art studio and having lots of coloring books and Play-Doh at home. She chuckles at the memories and says, “It was such a treat to get a new pack of Crayola crayons, especially the kind with a sharpener in the back.”
By the time Butler got to Columbia High School, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in art and went on to earn a degree in fine art at Howard University. Butler combined her love of art with education and taught in the Newark Public Schools, later returning to CHS for four years to teach Art 1, fibers, design and drawing.
It wasn’t until she pursued a master of fine arts at Montclair State University that Butler tried quilting. She admits that she hadn’t considered quilting to be art because fibers were never part of her formal art training. One of her projects included making a quilted oven mitt as a piece of art and she says, “That was the moment my life changed. I had loved to sew and make clothes – now I could combine it with art.”
\Her final project was pivotal as well. Butler had planned to submit a painting that she had made of her grandmother Violet. Unfortunately, Violet thought she had painted her to look too old so Butler scrapped it. That’s when inspiration struck. Noticing anew her grandmother’s wedding picture displayed on a dresser, she decided to represent the portrait on a quilt.
Using the sewing skills and cloth that Violet had passed on to her, as well as lots of lace – they reminded her of the dresses her grandmother would have worn to church in her home town of New Orleans – and other pieces that spoke to her personality, she pieced together the portrait. When her professor saw the quilt, they both realized she had created something new and different.
Butler has been quilting ever since, turning to that first experience for future efforts. For each series, she uses vintage photos that are full figures; most are pre-1960. Many of her photos come from a good friend who enjoys scouring estate sales. Butler finds others from the Library of Congress – images that are in the public domain. She says, “I always want to make people look good, not forlorn or destitute.” She’ll fix up their hair or put a pair of shoes on someone who has none.
Last year, Butler left her teaching position at CHS so she could pursue her art full time. And this past June she was inducted into the Columbia High School Hall of Fame for her art. “My business has exploded,” she says, adding that her waiting list is 200 people long. Each quilt takes two to four weeks to complete, resulting in roughly 30 quilts per year. She can’t wrap her head around when she’ll be able to get to the end of the list.
Butler is in the enviable position of choosing her subjects; none of her work is commissioned. “I need to find a connection with an image,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the body language or the entire pose of the group itself.”
One of her latest pieces is taken from the photo of an African American baseball team from Morris Brown College. The team members were from the class of 1899 of the first educational institution in Georgia to be owned and operated independently by African Americans. This was well before the Negro League and just several decades after the Civil War ended. Butler found it fascinating that this group of men, proudly wearing their team shirts, were enjoying an American pastime despite the systematic repression they had undoubtedly experienced in society.
These figures are from a series Butler is doing on a baseball team from the class of 1899 at Morris Brown College, the first educational institution in Georgia to be owned and operated independently by African Americans.
Butler has shown her work as part of the Kinsey Collection at Walt Disney World, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, and at Miami Art Basel. Institutions that have acquired her work include the Art Institute of Chicago, the 21c Museum Hotels, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Look for her solo shows this fall at EXPO Chicago and in 2020 at the Katonah Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Ellen Donker is awed by Bisa Butler’s ability to piece together fabric to tell an important story with each quilt.