Bisa Butler’s quilted portraits are redefining what is accepted and excepted within the walls of art museums. Butler‘s unmistakable visuals forever obliterate any notion of quilting merely as “craft.” Their artistry matches anything ever painted or sculpted.
Across the nation, an unprecedented consideration of quilting has now placed this medium on an equal footing with what has always been considered “fine art;” any museum visit henceforth which doesn’t feature quilts in one form or another will seem lacking.
“Bisa Butler: Portraits,” on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 6, 2021, showcases 22 quilts in four galleries from the innovative Howard University graduate who trained there as a painter and shifted to quilting while pursuing her master’s degree at Montclair State University.
“When I first started making quilts and portraits, everything fit into place and I knew I was saying something,” Butler told Forbes.com.
Others weren’t so sure.
“One of the criticisms somebody told me was, ‘I just don’t know where you fit in,’” Butler recalls of early reception to her revolutionary quilted portraits. “I remember them looking at my portfolio and saying, ‘you’re not a portraitist like the painters who are popular right now and you’re not a quilter in the traditional sense either; you don’t have the abstraction and the geometric lines of traditional African American quilting, so I don’t know where you fit in,’ but I remember thinking at that moment, this person is telling me that they’ve never seen what I was doing before so it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Not fitting in” was one of the kinder critiques she remembers hearing.
“I got rejected so many times in the beginning; I had people tell me that my work was not art at all, or that I was using fibers as a crutch to cover up unskilled artistic expression,” Butler remembers. “I’ve had people say some pretty insulting things to me, things like it looks like I’m sewing up old blankets. I don’t hear that often anymore and I think a lot of people are starting to realize that the quilts that their grandmothers and aunties made are worthwhile and they need to set those aside and preserve them.”
Gee’s Bend Quilts begin a movement
Quilting’s “Big Bang” occurred with the exhibition of quilts made primarily during the 1960s and 1970s by Black women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The show, which was seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York during 2002 and 2003 was widely hailed. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman described it as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”
The exhibition shattered a long-standing segregation of quilting and fine art allowing contemporary artists like Butler to pursue the breakthrough and take quilting to a level of artistic esteem it has never previously enjoyed.
Butler considers herself a “granddaughter” of those artists and further credits Faith Ringgold as an indispensable figure in changing the perception of quilting.
“(Ringgold) is the preeminent quilter in the country–and I know she’s bigger than a quilter–she’s a ubiquitous artist, she also does sculpture and painting,” Butler said.
Bisa Butler’s artistic process
Butler created her first quilt titled Francis and Violette, based on her grandparents’ wedding photograph, as a project for a class on fiber art. While her early quilts depicted images from the photo albums of family members and friends, as her recognition grew, so did her search for source images. A search which now has her pouring through thousands of historical photographs from the National Archive and public records. These images are free for public use, a necessity for the artist before her portraits made her famous.
Many of her portraits, including those in the Art Institute of Chicago show, feature children. Not a surprise for the former 13-year high school art teacher.
When she finds individuals who resonate with her, she transforms the photograph and recreates it using hundreds–sometimes thousands–of fabric pieces that she layers and stitches together. She’ll remove the individual’s surroundings to focus exclusively on the figure.
The arduous process can take hundreds of hours to complete.
The result is a unique visual language. Detail as crisp, color as vibrant, imagery as strong as any painting or photograph, rich with the artist’s personal expression. Butler’s figures, all Black, are aware, proud, nobody’s victim. They upend stereotypical depictions of African Americans.
“I thought I was just creating portraits of my family and friends, that’s how it started, but, unfortunately, in this country, to create a positive image of a Black person becomes a political act,” Butler says. “It’s not like my work has slogans or overt political statements, but it’s highly politicized just to say I believe in Black families.”
When observing Butler’s portraits, look beyond the joyful colors and self-possessed individuals.
“Some of the images might look happy, but if you see them in the actual circumstances that they were in, sometimes the people are seated on a porch–just a couple of planks of wood–and they don’t have shoes and their clothes are torn,” Butler cautions. “What I am seeing is the beauty of the individual person, finding beauty and moments of happiness in times where you may have been in abject poverty, or maybe are going through something. My work is like a Black photo album. Nobody’s taking photos when your house is burning down or when their relative is sick and dying, that’s not when you want to snap a shot of them, so I don’t want to say that those things aren’t happening or don’t exist, but this is how we want to project ourselves to the outside.”
Quilting exhibitions around the nation
The National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with “Sew Many Quilts: Celebrating 30 Years of the National Quilt Museum” through June 8. Opened with a collection of 85 quilts on loan from founders Bill and Meredith Schroeder, the collection has expanded both in quantity and diversity and today exceeds 600 works of art.
“When we founded the American Quilter’s Society, part of the vision was to have a museum to house the quilts, honoring today’s quilters,” Meredith Schroeder told Forbes.com of the museum which she started in her hometown. “It’s the artistry of the quilts that amazes me–how anyone can make such beautiful designs from pieces of fabric; batting and stitching is a real gift.”
The National Quilt Museum is the largest of its kind in the world and has led to Paducah being known as Quilt City USA. The museum is one of the main reasons Paducah is recognized by UNESCO as a Creative City of Crafts & Folk Art, one of only a handful in the country.
An exhibition of Faith Ringgold’s work, including quilts, can be seen now at the Glenstone museum outside of Washington, D.C.
Through August 1, The Baltimore Museum of Art displays “She Knew Where She was Going: Gee’s Bend Quilts and Civil Rights.”
L’Merchie Frazier’s solo show of quilts, “Freedom Rising: I Am the Story,” runs through September 19 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Frazier’s show is part of a group of exhibitions created in response to the nationwide protest movement against police brutality and racism following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
Many of Frazier’s multilayered quilts are inspired by history and feature portraits of important African American activists including Ericka Huggins, an activist and educator and former leading member of the Black Panthers’ Party, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, writer and one of the first African American women to be published in the United States.
When the Berkeley Museum of Art opens later in April, it will do so with a retrospective devoted to quilter Rosie Lee Thompkins through July 18.
Butler’s work will feature prominently in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s “Fabric of A Nation, American Quilt stories,” opening October 10 and running through January 17, 2022.