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Fiber artist Bisa Butler discusses the AfriCOBRA tradition, the artistic breakthrough that led to her finding her voice, and the process behind her amazing life-size works.

Design Matters From the Archive: Bisa Butler

Design Matters From the Archive: Bisa Butler

ARTIST

19.7.21

Bisa Butler / AfriCOBRA / quilting / sewing / textiles

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

I could say Bisa Butler is a fiber artist, and I wouldn’t be wrong. Her work is made of quilted textiles. But it’s saying that Jackson Pollock worked in paint. Bisa Butler does extraordinarily vibrant quilted portraits of African Americans. Some are famous, like Frederick Douglass. But most are unnamed men and women who happened to have had a photograph taken before they were forgotten by history. But Bisa Butler has brought them back to us in life-scale images that stick in the mind and claim our attention and respect. She joins me to talk about her work and her career. Bisa Butler, welcome to Design Matters.


Bisa Butler:

Thank you so much, Debbie. I’m so happy to be here.


Debbie Millman:

Bisa, is it true you were named as the artist of the month at your nursery school?


Bisa Butler:

Yes, I was. I went to school in the ’70s. It was definitely full-on hippie time. The name of the nursery school was Sundance School, just to give you an idea of what we got going. I was artist of the month. I was so thrilled. But I had no concept of time. I thought that meant art like the artists of the school, artists Emeritus forever.


Debbie Millman:

Forever.


Bisa Butler:

When the month changed, somebody else’s name was up there. I was so hurt. I couldn’t understand.


Debbie Millman:

Oh. I understand you were allowed to draw guardian angels on the walls of your bedroom when you were 3, so that you wouldn’t be afraid to sleep in your own bed.


Bisa Butler:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

You also won a blue ribbon in the Plainfield sidewalk art competition when you were 4.


Bisa Butler:

Yes, I did. Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Was there ever a time in your history you can think of when you weren’t being creative?


Bisa Butler:

I really can’t. As far back as I can remember. I think that goes with most kids, though. They’re drawing, coloring and painting. I think the only difference is that I kept at it.


Debbie Millman:

You were born and raised in New Jersey. You are the youngest of four siblings, and your mother’s family is from Louisiana?


Bisa Butler:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Your father left Ghana in 1960 and came to the United States with a scholarship to study, and a suitcase with one shirt and one pair of pants. He ultimately became a college president for nearly four decades. You’ve said that you got your unwavering work ethic from him. In what way?


Bisa Butler:

Oh my goodness. What my father would always drum into our heads: “No matter what you do, you have to be the best. If you’re a street sweeper, you’d be the best street sweeper.” He told us so many stories about being a small boy in Ghana in the 1940s, and what that was like to have to … school kids used to sing “All Hail to the Queen,” talking about Queen Elizabeth, because Ghana wasn’t a free country at the time. They were still colonized. He just talked about what that was like and the struggles that he went through as a child. His father died of appendicitis when he was about 11. He was at boarding school, and he caught a bus home. He had heard … they told him “your father is ill, you need to go home.” It took him about … I think he said about 24 hours on the bus. By the time he got home, the family was on their way back from the burial.


Debbie Millman:

Oh my god.


Bisa Butler:

After his father passed, the family split apart. His mother, my grandmother, couldn’t afford to take care of the children. She could only keep the baby with her, and there were five. Two of his sisters were married to, I think, he was a 60-year-old man.


Debbie Millman:

The two different sisters are married to the same man?


Bisa Butler:

Two sisters to the same man. They were 7 and 8, mind you. They weren’t adult women. They were little girls. The family was so devastated financially after my grandfather’s death that my father always had in his mind that that was never going to happen to his family. He said he used to pray every night that he lived because he wants to take care of the children. He’s still alive now. Thank God. He’s still advising me every day. He looks at my Instagram, he comments, and he comes to all my exhibits. I grew up knowing that it was that do or die. You must do well.


Debbie Millman:

He must be so proud of you.


Bisa Butler:

Yeah, he is. He is. I mean, he definitely, he steered us, all of us, towards education, because that was his way out of poverty and out of despair. He tried to guide me into being an architect in my undergrad years. But it just was not working out at all. I got a scholarship to Howard University. I showed up to School of Architecture. I remember this big project I did. They have us, I don’t know, design some building. I had this idea that I was going to use a black board with white pencil, because I wanted to flip the script. I was trying to inject some creativity into a project that didn’t really interest me. I worked so hard on this thing.


Bisa Butler:

I remember one of the professors saying mine looked dirty, because he didn’t like the smudge of the white. They gave me a C, just based off of that. I was so wrecked and angry and despondent that I called home and I told my dad, “I’m going to lose the scholarship, because I can’t stay in the School of Architecture.”


Debbie Millman:

How did he respond? What was his sense of what you could do instead?


Bisa Butler:

At the time, Howard’s tuition, I think, was $10,000 a year, and now I think it’s $48,000. It was felt. He was disappointed but he knew me. I was the youngest and I was always really headstrong. I remember him being like, “If you feel this is what you need to do, OK. But you’re going to go into education.” He wanted to at least know that I could teach art, and that I wasn’t going to be a starving artist. That was his fear. That came from his childhood, literally starving.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I want to talk a bit more about your college experience and what happened. But I have a few more questions for you about your origin story and growing up in the family that you did. I know that you came from a family of people who knew how to sew—your grandmother, your mother and all six of her sisters knew how to sew.


Bisa Butler:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

They weren’t quilters. They sewed out of necessity to enhance their homes and their wardrobe. Did you first learn how to sew as a little girl, or was it something that came later?


Bisa Butler:

I learned as a little girl. I remember my mother always having a sewing room. … In the ’70s, every woman had a sewing room in the house, it seems like.


Debbie Millman:

Well, my mom did because she was a seamstress. I grew up …


Bisa Butler:

I didn’t know that.


Debbie Millman:

… And she was making people’s clothes for a living. She had ads in the PennySaver. People would come to our house and she’d do fittings.


Bisa Butler:

That’s awesome.


Debbie Millman:

Most of the people that she ended up making clothes for were people that couldn’t buy conventional clothes for any number of reasons. That’s what I grew up with. She’d make little drawings of each outfit afterward, like fashion drawings. That’s how I learned how to draw, because I would make them with her.


Bisa Butler:

Oh my gosh. I love that. Yeah. I guess similar to that. Although my mother, she loved French fashion. We always had like Elle magazine, Marie Claire. But she grew up in Morocco. They all did. We would have the French Marie Claire and Vogue and we would see these Charles Jourdan and Christian Dior dresses. Then she and her sisters would make them. She’d be sewing. I wanted clothes for my Barbie. That’s how it started. I’d asked her, “Can you make this for my Barbie?” I remember one day her sitting me down and being like, “OK, no. You’re going to learn how to sew this. I’m not making all your dolls clothes.” I remember making a funky looking—funky as in bad—pair of wool pants for my Ken doll. They had no elastic. They had the whole stovepipe thing going. But I think, if I can recall, that was the first thing that I sewed.


Debbie Millman:

I read that for your 20th birthday, you decided to sew a fitted ankle-length sleeveless linen dress with a cowrie shell choker–style collar, and you designed the dress yourself and you sewed it without a pattern while away at school, and you were so proud of the dress. You brought it to your grandmother’s house to show it to her. I was wondering if you could share with our listeners what happened next.


Bisa Butler:

Sure. First of all, I thought I was ready to be an extra on “Living Single” or something like that. I thought I was up there with Queen Latifah and them. I made this dress. Me and my boyfriend at the time—who’s now my husband—we were going to Miami for that. It was a big deal. It’s my birthday. He was taking me to Miami. This is the first time I went away with a boy. I was showing my grandma, I went over to my grandmother’s house. I was home for the weekend from Howard. I remember her face when she looked at it. She was like, “Look at the seams, look at the hem. How is that?” Because instead of me sewing anything properly, if it wasn’t right, I would just fold it under and then sew across it 17 times. The hem was crazy. Nothing was cut on the bias. It was all kinds of wrong. But I figured … I thought it was linens. Linen stretches in strange ways when you sew it. I thought as long as I had it on, nobody was going to be looking all at my hem or anything like that. I spent the night over there that night. When I woke up the next morning, my grandmother had unstitched the entire dress and re-sewed it together the right way. I remember her saying, “You had sewn that thing over and over, and I had to take all those stitches out.” She was fussing. But she could not let that dress go as it was. She knew that I was going to be wearing it on the trip, too. She fixed it and I did get to wear that dress on my birthday.


Debbie Millman:

You’re loved. That’s wonderful. I love that story. I love that story.


Bisa Butler:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

When you were at Howard, when you made the decision to pursue fine art as opposed to architecture, one of your professors—and also a dean at Howard—Jeff Donaldson, was also the founder of a movement called Africobra, which is the African Commune of Bad and Relevant Artists. Can you talk a little bit about the Africobra movement and what you learned from Jeff and your other professors?


Bisa Butler:

The Africobra movement started in the 1960s in Chicago. The dean of the school, Jeff Donaldson, he was straight out of Chicago. I think he was from Pine Bluff, AK. But he had went to the Art Institute, the School of the Art Institute. He and a whole bunch of Bad and Relevant Artists formed Africobra in Chicago. They were just basically addressing the thing that, “Here are these young college-educated artists, but there’s no aesthetic for African American art.” There was the Harlem Renaissance Artists.


Bisa Butler:

I won’t say that they came up with it. They were learning from the Jacob Lawrence’s Aaron Douglas, Romare Bearden. Those men were still alive in the ’60s, and very much present. A lot of them were professors at schools; John Biggers taught in Texas, huge, huge influence on the Black art scene. Those giants taught my professors. But it seemed my professors were more like “In your face.” I’m proud and I’m not backing down, say it loud, “I’m Black and I’m proud,” where the African American aesthetic in the ’40s might have been Negritude. You know what I’m saying?


Bisa Butler:

There was this little more classy, refined thing. They wanted to go to Europe into Paris to learn. They wanted to come set up their studios here. In the ’60s, they were bump Paris. We don’t want the European aesthetic at all. As a matter of fact, we’re also going to support ordinary people. We want to talk about people living in the projects, people who can’t pay for artwork, people who will never get to see Paris. They went back and took what they learned, and then basically turned up the volume. That volume, you could see in the colors that they chose. They chose what they call the Kool-Aid colors. You think of Kool-Aid, it’s a cheap drink. It’s for mostly poor people.


Bisa Butler:

They wanted to transform something that was looked at as negative and poor as something to be proud of. That also spread into their artwork itself. They had a whole manifesto. It was like, “Your artwork should educate your people. Your people should be proud. They should feel dignified.” Those were taken from the Harlem Renaissance era. Then they also were saying, “We want to be cool about it. This is African Commune of Bad and Relevant Artists. We’re coming really young. We’re coming really strong with kicking in the door and coming with our own philosophy.” By the time they ended up being my professors, they were my age now. They were in their 40s. Some of them were in their 50s.


Bisa Butler:

They were adamant on impressing upon us in the ’90s that you have to take up this mantle. Our people are still struggling and we see that we’re still struggling now. African Americans are often miseducated in the American school system. They’re not often taught about their history. If you’re an artist, you have an obligation to make your art accessible to the people. That means make a mural or make inexpensive posters. When our people look at the artwork, they should always feel good about themselves to counteract looking at the Brady Bunch and you’re not there, or “Leave it to Beaver” and you’re not there. Straight up “Tarzan” when you are there, but you’re portrayed like a wild, ignorant savage. This is your obligation. When Black people look at your art is to refute all of the negativity that is being shoved in our faces by mass media.


Debbie Millman:

One of the things that I was so fascinated by in researching the Africobra movement was the notion of painting on Black canvasses instead of white canvasses or using yellow to lighten a color palette as opposed to using white. Can you talk about some of those very conscious and deliberate choices and what that meant, or means?


Bisa Butler:

Sure. I think at that time, they were trying to almost be … they wanted all-black everything. To be even as literal as saying, “You’re having a black canvas. Now, what kind of paint are you going to paint on there that’s going to be vibrant enough, that’s going to have the same effect? How are you going to build depth out of this inky darkness that can also be understood? Myself, as a dark-skinned woman, I would have been told … I was told, especially in the ’80s, “Don’t wear red lipstick. You’re too dark for red lipstick. You never wear yellow, because it makes you look too dark.” You wanted to wear colors … I could wear blue or purple.


Bisa Butler:

I think that they were trying to reinvent what it is to paint in a Black way, in an African American way. As far as saying, “You cannot use white to lighten the skin. I mean, you can look at that aesthetically; even European artists in the Beaux-Arts tradition, they follow that as well, some, some. But by saying, “If you add white when you’re trying to lighten up a skin tone, the person looks unnatural. We all have blood running beneath our skin. What if you use the light pink instead? What if you use yellow? What if you use orange?” Just that idea that white is not going to work for us aesthetically, but they were also rejecting it philosophically that we don’t want to use white everything, anything. We want to use all black in all colors all the time.


Debbie Millman:

Despite getting a fine arts degree in painting and graduating cum laude, I understand that you struggled to connect with painting at that time, and to find your own voice. What do you think was happening at that time?


Bisa Butler:

I think it just wasn’t me. I thought, OK, I like art. I like to create. I must want to be a painter. But when you’re in high school, high school art class, you have a couple of painting assignments. But it’s not like you spend half a year painting. I had never been in a studio course before. I would look to the left, and look to the right. I remember there were these cool-ass kids who had their style already, were doing these funky things, and I wasn’t. If the professor said, “Paint the person next to you,” then that’s exactly what I did. I was very literal. I wasn’t able to just freestyle and go off in these tangents.


Bisa Butler:

I remember one time our professor had a model. She sat in the middle of the room. I forget how she posed. But some basic pose. She sat on a chair and was leaning in her hand. I painted her just like that. Then at the end of the class, it’s a three-hour class, you turn your canvas around. My friend was sitting next to me. She had put little Bantu knots in the model’s hair. She had all these colors popping out and around her. I think that was one of the pivotal moments where I was just like, “I don’t have this. What she’s doing, I’m not doing.” My professor, Al Smith, he was really kind, and I expressed to him, I was like, “I just am not getting there.” He understood that and he said, “OK, I’m going to come to your studio. Where do you work?” I said, “Well, I work in the dining room at this house that I lived in D.C. with all my friends.” We had about seven kids living in this house.


Bisa Butler:

Al came over one day. My friends are there, some of them are smokers. I mean, not cigarette smokers. Some had incense going. The hip hop music was … it was just very ’90s, whatever you can imagine. They’re walking in and out. I’m working. I had on these funky lace pants and combat boots. Al was like, “Why don’t you use the parts of you in your artwork. Look at these funky clothes that you’re wearing. Look at your friends. You should be portraying them. They’re all super gorgeous.” Well, in our 20s, skin glowing, all vegetarian. We were peak glow, peak healthiness.


Bisa Butler:

He told me to look at the work of Romare Bearden, study what he did with collage and use my fabrics in my artwork. He gave me an assignment. He said, “I want you to do a piece. I just want you to use fabric, and I want to see what you come up with.” I did. I went to the fabric store, and I bought orange and yellow velvet, red satin, silk satin, I bought pink lace. All this was pretty garish. But I put together this face. It looked like African sculpture because every feature was made out of a different piece of fabric. I was embarrassed to show Al. At the end of class, he called everybody around. He said, “Bisa, let’s see what you did.” I pulled that thing out. He loved it. It’s pretty bad. I still have it.


Bisa Butler:

But I remember his reaction. He was like, “Yes. Yes. This is what I’m talking about. Oh, right.” All his 1960 slang all came out. I felt like, OK, I liked this. I like walking between those fabric aisles. I feel at home with this. I felt he had given me something really special at that moment.


Debbie Millman:

At that point, you were still incorporating fabric into painting though, is that correct?


Bisa Butler:

Yeah. See, Al, he was the outlier. He actually … I don’t think he was in Africobra. Now was senior year. I had to come up with my senior thesis. I was going to have my senior studio review. I can’t remember how many pieces. But let’s say we had to have 10–15 pieces of artwork. I knew that I had to have some paint on there, because it was a painting degree. There was mixed media. But that wasn’t what my degree was in, and I didn’t want to have to start that thing all over again. I was gluing on a canvas, and on board I was painting and then adding fabric pieces, collaging them on. They almost weren’t going to graduate me because one of my professors was like, “I don’t know what this is. You’re supposed to be a painter, and this ain’t paint.” Then Al Smith, and I think there were two or three who are on my side. He was like, “She is painting. She’s painting on fabric.”


Bisa Butler:

Then it got so bad that in that review, they usually tell you right then. I think the top score was, say, a five, like an AP test. You got a five. You got a four. You got a three. They tell me I need to leave and go home, because they have to deliberate on this much longer and they’ll call me later in the evening. I also was five months pregnant at this time with my daughter, who’s now 24. I was just like, “You know what? I’m not going to be back in September. I’m going to be a mom with a newborn. I’m 20 years old. I’m not going to be back anytime soon.” I went home, back to my house with all my friends. I did get a call later. They told me that I would graduate. But I just remember even getting that call, I didn’t feel a tremendous sense of relief. I was just like, “Whatever,” at that point. Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Bet they regret that now.


Bisa Butler:

Who knows? I guess.


Debbie Millman:

Because you were five months pregnant with your first daughter at that time, you found yourself overcome with unbearable nausea at the smell of paint. How were you imagining your future not necessarily ever being able to paint again without getting nauseous, without being sick?


Bisa Butler:

I was so into trying to be a good mother because I was so young. I graduated, I think, May 15th, and then me and my husband got married May 20th. My whole mind was on, “I’m going to be a mother, and I’m going to be a wife.” The smell of oil paint is so strong. You have to clean your brushes with turpentine, using paint thinner to thin out your paint. Everything is toxic. The paints themselves, the names of them, like xylol xylene green and cadmium yellow, all that they’re seriously toxic chemicals in the paint. I was reacting to it; even opening up a cap would send me retching. It was very hard to finish those last paintings. It was emotionally, I was done with it. Physically, I just couldn’t manage it.


Bisa Butler:

Then, after having that bad experience, I remember thinking, I don’t care if I ever paint again. I guess I won’t be an artist. I can design clothes. I was making clothing and sewing while I was pregnant. But I had really just given up on the idea that I would have a career as an artist. Then I thought, Well, I could focus on teaching. That’s what I did. Eventually, after my daughter was a little bit older, I went to grad school and I started teaching art.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. You earned a master’s degree in art education at Montclair State University. But it wasn’t until you were studying for your master’s degree in education that you finally made your first quilt. What motivated that? What was the topic matter?


Bisa Butler:

That first quilt in grad school was actually … what I loved about Montclair State was, even though I was graduating with a master’s in teaching, they had prerequisites. We had to take jewelry making, which we didn’t have at Howard. Then we also had to take fibers. I would say that I felt Howard didn’t want those crafts courses, because they wanted this African American aesthetic. But it was also this feeling of, we want to get away from stereotypical old-time Negro crafts, if I say that. I think that they felt fibers—quilting, basket-making, knitting—were something that people did on plantations, or something that people did down South that was an uneducated thing to do.


Bisa Butler:

I think they had this a little bit of an inferiority complex that didn’t exist when I went to Montclair State, a primarily white college. The fibers program at Montclair State was heavily run by women, white women. The women’s movement has whole different categories, and different hang-ups, and different things that they were pushing. They were saying, “We’re embracing women’s art, women’s work.” This craft work was revered. They had pushed it that every art student, even if art education, art history, had to take fibers. Thank God, my professor at the time, Kerr Grabowski, was somebody who was very heavily into the craft circuit. I think she spent six months out of the year traveling, doing craft fairs.


Bisa Butler:

She wanted us to dabble in all of the major fibers. We did surface design. We did weaving. We did felting, which I had never done. I thought it was so much fun. Have you ever felted?


Debbie Millman:

I love felt. Yes. I love felt. I actually have done quite a bit of art with felt letters.


Bisa Butler:

Oh. How did I not know that?


Debbie Millman:

Because, yeah, it’s just not even in the realm of what you do.


Bisa Butler:

OK.


Debbie Millman:

It’s fun.


Bisa Butler:

Isn’t it the feel of that wet wool? It connects.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Bisa Butler:

There’s something that is happening that I think is going all the way back to when we were just humans and trying to make our very first cloths.


Debbie Millman:

Yes.


Bisa Butler:

She had an assignment for us. She said, “You can make a quilt. It can be squares and geometric design, or you can make a landscape, or you can make a still life.” I don’t think she said portrait. She said, “You could do it still life.” I made a little oven-mitt–sized piece of the corner of the classroom. There was stuff in there that we use in fiber. It looked domestic. There was a blender. I suppose maybe somebody was blending. I don’t know if we blended ink. However it was. But I did that. Then I was like, “OK. I can make pictures of realistic things with fabric.”


Bisa Butler:

I want to do, for the final project, my grandmother’s portrait. My grandmother’s health was failing. She didn’t want to get a kidney transplant. She wasn’t going to do dialysis. She was like, “I’m not doing any of those things.” She was getting very ill. I was painting her on the weekends. Then when I finished painting her, she hated that painting.


Debbie Millman:

Is this the same grandmother that re-sewed your dress?


Bisa Butler:

Yes. My grandmother was … she was raised with very high standards. She was a New Orleans belle. She wasn’t a Creole. She was a Black woman from New Orleans. But she definitely … her ancestors were Creoles. She hated the painting. She said I made her look old. While that happened, I thought, OK, how about I make a quilted portrait of her? For class, I can fulfill my assignment. I have my final project. I’m able to give something to my grandmother. I used all these fabrics that the teacher had donated. She had some black fabric with purple flowers. My grandmother’s name was Violet. I thought, OK, this looks violet, need some there, need some lace.


Bisa Butler:

But while that was happening,  I’m coming up with my own aesthetic without realizing that I’m using pieces of fabric to describe her. Not just because they’re pretty. That portrait, I still have it. My grandmother was so happy with it. She’s used to lay it … by this time, she was bedridden. She would keep the quilt over her legs on the bed. But she had to still have the tissue paper over it. She was just really sweet. It was special, because she loved it. How I portrayed her was her wedding photo. She was happy with the way she looked.


Bisa Butler:

I should have realized that, too. Who wants a portrait done of them while you’re literally dying? I didn’t connect that and understand that she still had her own vanity, and was still a beautiful woman, and she saw herself not as the sickly elderly woman. Creating that helped me to understand her as a person, finally. You know when people die, and the pictures at the funeral are sometimes younger. But once they die, they’re ageless, right?


Debbie Millman:

Yes.


Bisa Butler:

It’s perfectly fine to have a picture of her at 20, or 30, or 40. I understood that of her before she passed that that’s how she saw herself. That’s how she wanted to be seen. I was glad that I was able to do that. That kicked off my entire second half of my life.


Debbie Millman:

Reminds me of Lee Krasner’s response when she first saw Jackson Pollock’s strip paintings and said that he had found his voice. Did you have a sense of this being, this moment, this big breakthrough at that time?


Bisa Butler:

Yeah. For sure. My grandmother was so proud. She made anybody who came to visit her look at the piece. But my mom was 1 of 10. I have a lot of aunts and uncles. All of their responses were like, “You did that? Wow.” They were really impressed. My professor and all my classmates were … everybody else had a regular sheet of project. But when I busted that out, my professor, everybody, was like, “OK, this girl is on the next level.”


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Bisa Butler:

I think they could see it and I could feel it too. This is special. I got it. I finally got it.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. After getting your master’s degree, you worked for more than a decade as a high school art teacher. You taught art for 13 years at the same high school you attended while you were growing up. By this point, you also had … you were married, you had two children. When were you able to create art?


Bisa Butler:

Well, actually, I taught for 10 years in the Newark Public Schools, which is a more urban school district. Our kids there were really, I would say, a lot of their parents are going through economic hardship, or at least more than 50% of them. Then the last three years I worked at my high school where I went, Columbia High School in Maplewood. And Lauryn Hill also graduated from that school, SZA went there. Ibtihaj Muhammad, the silver medaling African American fencer, went there.


Bisa Butler:

That was so awesome to be able to come home again. I was in the classroom where I was once a kid. My teacher, he had retired maybe four years ahead before I got there. But it was a real mind F, as you say, when you suddenly are in the shoes that you were as a child. All throughout my time at the Newark Public Schools, I just had this idea that I would work full time as a mom, full time as a wife, full time as a teacher, and I would give myself the weekends to make artwork.


Bisa Butler:

I will say that the African American community is so affirming. All of the aunties gather, especially with quilts. As soon as you start making something, my friends would be like, “That’s really good. Can you make me one? Can you make me one for my daughter?” Then my co-workers, I made quilts for, I think, maybe half the faculty when I was in Newark. Then I would get invited to things. My whole career was a word-of-mouth thing. Like, “I know this lady who makes quilts.” Then somebody would call me and say, “I’d like to get an anniversary quilt done for my grandparents. Can you do that?” I would end up having these little jobs and I’d be making quilts on the weekends and in the summertime.


Bisa Butler:

Thank God my husband was so helpful. He would take the kids to the park when they were really small, and then I could sew on the weekends. Because kids, they don’t care if it’s a weekend. It’s all about me all the time.


Debbie Millman:

But these are more than quilts. I mean, this is art. I mean, this is thousands of hours put into creating quilts with, I would imagine, minimally, several thousand pieces of fabric. That’s quite a gift.


Bisa Butler:

Thank you. I think that my father always saying, “You should do your best. You should do your best thing.” That is part of my work ethic, too. Then it’s also that I knew these people. If it didn’t look right, I will be embarrassed. I will work really hard. I have an older brother. Well, he passed now. But he was the hustler. He decided that he was going to take one of my quilts and sell it in downtown Newark. I was livid. I remember him grabbing the quilt, and he had it rolled up under his arm. He was halfway out the door. He was like, “I could get $100 for this. I’ll be back.” I was like, “No. I want to have my artwork in galleries and museums.” We were going at it. He’s like, “You’re not in the gallery museum. This was rolled up under your bed. When I leave, it’s going right back under there. He was right.


Debbie Millman:

Well, hardly. Now your work is in museums and galleries.


Bisa Butler:

Right. He forced me. He put my feet to the flame. He forced me. Making these pieces for friends and family is one thing, but exhibiting your artwork was a whole other thing. My father was the president at Essex County College and they had a gallery. I called up his head of programs, Charlotte. I was like, “Charlotte, can I have a show in the gallery?” But I think I really needed to prove my brother wrong. Not really because I thought that this show was going to be a big success. Charlotte told me to come meet her. I went downtown and went into the gallery. It was after hours, maybe 5 or 6, and my kids were small. They were running around in this empty gallery. Charlotte was saying, “This is the space. You could have it.” Then she said, “But where’s your art? What do you have?” I opened my purse. I had this piece that I had done with my aunt. I unfolded it.


Bisa Butler:

I will never forget her face and her reaction. It was so good. She was just like, “Bisa, you had that in your bag?” She had never seen my artwork. Didn’t know what I was doing. She was so thrilled and happy to see the piece. Then that gave her this confidence. I think she just thought “I’m just being nice to the boss’ daughter. She’s going to put up some little things here and it’s not going to be anything.” After that, she was a thousand percent behind me. She’s still helpful in my life to this day. I think I hung maybe 20 pieces for the show, and sold everything. Although I’m pretty sure half of the things were bought because I was the boss’ daughter.


Debbie Millman:

Well, they must be very happy now.


Bisa Butler:

I think so. But then half of the folks, I do recall the feeling was genuine. They were happy to buy these.


Debbie Millman:

At this point in your career, your quilts weren’t life-size. Now they are. What made you decide to feature the full body in life-size?


Bisa Butler:

I started making my pieces bigger and full-bodied, I think, when I started working with Claire Oliver, the Claire Oliver Gallery in New York. The great thing about Claire is that she actually comes over and sits with me in my studio, kind of like Al Smith. Well, I didn’t even realize that till you asked that question. Actually visits with me in the studio trying to get the vibe of what I’m doing. When we first started talking, she saw my smaller pieces, where they were all about poster size. She asked me, “If you were to be full time, what would you do?” I said, “Oh, I would definitely make pieces bigger,” because I almost felt the small pieces, they represented the time that I could spend on them. I had a weekend. I would have an art exhibit, maybe, let’s say, an art exhibit at a local church. I needed to make the sizes that I could complete. Even contemplating the idea of being full time meant that I could make things full size.


Bisa Butler:

I did experiment with making things even really, really big. Let’s say, a six-foot-tall piece that’s only a person’s head and shoulders. I found that size for me was too big. I couldn’t manipulate the pieces the way I wanted to. Then I scaled it back. I thought, OK, I’m going to try making images of my friend’s children. I really wanted to impress Claire with what I have come up with, because she was thinking about signing me. I asked my friends for … send me pictures of the kids. I think about five. All the little girls were about 5 to 8. I made these pieces. Then the next time that Claire came by, I had all these life-sized pieces of these little girls. I could tell she was all in. I had hit the stride again, like, OK, I got it. They need to be life-size. I don’t need to make them gigantic. I don’t need to make them too small. For me, the smaller it is, the harder it is, actually.


Debbie Millman:

Did you have to make those small stitches?


Bisa Butler:

Right. The small stitches. I mean, an eye, if it has 20 pieces, but you’re using an eight-and-a-half size piece of paper, what size is that eye? Microscopic. I also found life-size makes it one-to-one. They feel more real to me, more present.


Debbie Millman:

You also work from photographs. You often work from historical photographs. Talk about why you do that?


Bisa Butler:

I love looking back. I’ve always been somebody who looks at the past and is interested in it. The time that I spent with my grandmother, all her photos were black and white. I loved hearing about my mother’s life in Morocco and hanging out with the princesses. My grandfather was a U.S. emissary, which is very … a Black man in the ’50s taking his family to live in Africa was not really … it wasn’t common. I’ll say that. Because of that they had a lot of access to all kinds of diplomats and royalty, and I loved hearing about the photos. Then my grandmother’s people were the Creoles in New Orleans. That was early African American middle class, free people in the time of slavery and after. A lot of them were mixed-race people, and the Creoles had their own class.


Bisa Butler:

I did some research lately. I found that some of my ancestors were actually slave-owning Creoles, which is just “What the hell?” That’s a whole another ball. But I grew up looking at photos of Black people dressed very nicely, living middle-class lives, putting their best foot forward in photos. I’m very interested in that and I stayed. As I transitioned from working as a teacher and making quilts of my friends and family, I started thinking about what do I want to portray? I started thinking about vintage photos. My extended African American family—and they’re not just African American, but African Diaspora, because I myself have roots in Ghana.


Bisa Butler:

That’s what I’m interested in now, working from vintage photos. Then that query had helped me stumble upon just thousands of photos that are just an identified in the databases, in the National Archives, in the Smithsonian archives. It’ll just say “Negro ballplayer,” or “Negro washerwoman,” or “Negro schoolchildren.” That became the thing that I was like, “Oh, this is not right.” Because these photos, a lot of them were taken in the ’40s and the ’50s; their families are still around, even if the photo was dated 1890. The families are still around, but these photos are lost to them. I start looking at a photo. Let’s say I choose a subject. I see Negro washerwoman. I start looking at her. Now I’m doing it one-to-one. She’s life-size. I’m sketching it, I’m thinking, Who is this woman? Who was her family? What was she really like? I’m trying my best to pull it out of the photo and give her back the identity that is there, but it’s being ignored or being passed over.


Debbie Millman:

Makes me think of the Susan Sontag quote, “A photograph furnishes evidence.”


Bisa Butler:

Yeah. I think about it personally. If somehow … sometimes we throw away old photos. You’ve had a relative of the past. You got to clean out their house. What if one of my photos were in there, and it got put in a database? “Negro woman making art.” No. “Negro woman sewing.” How about that? How would I feel about that just being written off as basically nothing? You’re almost the spectacle, or maybe we’re almost back to the human zoos at that point. I’m not a human being. How would I want an artist to approach my photo 100 years from now?


Debbie Millman:

How do you find and pick and use the fabric in your pieces?


Bisa Butler:

Actually, I just went shopping today. That’s a great question. But I finally started zeroing in on what is my aesthetic? My mother and grandmother were dressmakers. I use a lot of dressmaker’s fabric and I go to local fabric shops. Because I live so close to New York, the Garment District is just like my backyard. I’m getting brocades and silk chiffons and silk damask. I can get all of the fine fabrics that I grew up using the scraps to make my Barbie dolls’ fantastic clothing. Then I’m pulling in my father’s side, which is African fabric.


Bisa Butler:

In Ghana, they’re famous for making this fabric called kente, which is a heavy woven fabric. The European businessmen back in the 1800s came through Africa. They saw the colors and the textures, but they were able to capitalize on that and make a cheaper fabric and a lighter fabric called Dutch Wax. I think they had Indian cotton, and then European printers, and then it was sold to the continent. It’s been popular in Africa since probably before World War I. I use a lot of that in my pieces because the African women, they don’t just … let’s say they make a fabric that has something that looks … there’s one that has … it has this little wavy figurine on it. Then it goes to the marketplace and the African women called that “big lips.” That fabric is known as big lips. I don’t know if you wear that if you have big lips. But it’s affirmation. Even though that was not the original intention of the European printer, this is what it’s called.


Bisa Butler:

Then these companies, Vlisco is one of the big companies. I think they’re the most well-known. They actually will go back and name that piece “big loops.” … I’m like, “Why did they make this?” But I love …


Bisa Butler:

When I put that on a piece … remember I was talking about, let’s say, I found a woman or washerwoman, maybe putting my husband is not capable … it tells the story also that there’s financial strain in her life. It’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s funny. But the African women, when I exhibit my artwork, they know that fabric. They know what it means. I feel I’m communicating a coded message, like the quilts were back in the day. I’m saying something.


Debbie Millman:

Your use of portraiture is creating something truly new in the tradition of quilting. You’re now among a very small group of Black artists, including Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, who are evolving a technique historically reserved for European aristocrats to tell the story of contemporary Black identity. The subjects in your portraits confront the viewer directly. They’re not just life-size. They’re also looking directly at the viewer. You’ve stated that the portraits include clues of your subjects’ inner thoughts, and their heritage, and their actual emotions, and even their future. How do you discover this in the subjects that you choose? Or do you feel you’re helping to create their history?


Bisa Butler:

Sometimes it can come from just close observation. I might be working on a piece that might take me 400 hours. I have a piece that took me 1,500 hours. Staring at anybody’s photo that long, you do start to see certain things. I did a portrait of Frederick Douglass. Obviously, he’s a known figure. He’s an orator, statesman, abolitionist, feminist. But when I was staring at his photo, I saw this dark mark in the corner of his left eye, where the tear duct is. I was thinking, “What’s that? That’s interesting.” Then I went and I reread his autobiography, and he mentioned that he was once beat so bad that he almost lost sight in his left eye.


Bisa Butler:

Here I am looking at this photo and I’m seeing evidence of the burst capillaries in his eye from that beating. It just made me see him as a human being, as somebody who can feel pain, somebody who suffered and had these scars on him for the rest of his life. That goes not just for Frederick Douglass, but other people. Those context clues … I almost feel like a detective or anthropologist, because there may be only this one photo of this person. This photo was taken by a documentary photographer, or it could have been taken in a photography studio, but the name is gone, the location is gone. The family doesn’t even know that this photo exists. What can I glean from observing it? Look at their clothes. Look at how they’re dressed. Look at their nails. Look at their hair.


Bisa Butler:

I’m looking at these things trying to figure out who are they really, and what can I add? I don’t always know. I have looked at a photo of a man. It just said, “Negro man, Mississippi Delta.” He’s leaning up against a storefront. Maybe he’s waiting for a bus. His legs were crossed so elegantly. I call that piece, “I Am Not Your Negro,” after James Baldwin’s last, I think, manuscript?


Debbie Millman:

Yes. It’s also quite a good documentary now.


Bisa Butler:

Yes. Yes. Right. This man, I don’t know his life story. But just that elegant crossing of his legs like that made me think I want to do a piece dedicated to all of those expatriates, all of those writers and philosophers and thinkers. While this man is not James Baldwin, there was something there in him. But it was a grace to him that you would not expect from a guy. I mean, he has holes in his pants and patched up. His hat, he has a boater hat, straw boater, and it’s ripped. But I didn’t put any of those things in there. I chose this beautiful Dutch wax fabric with airplanes on it. Because I wanted to say, “This man is going places, and he’s been to Paris. He’s been to Lagos. I gave him a fixed hat, because I’m also thinking about him as a person. Who wants a portrait of themselves with ripped-up clothes? He wore those patched pants because that’s all he had. But if he had a choice, what would he choose? I’m sure it would not be to go with the patches.


Debbie Millman:

These objects in your art also stand in defiance against racial stereotypes. You’ve stated this about what you want people to understand when they look at your work. I’d like to read this quote, because I think it’s that meaningful. You write, “I want them to learn something. If you’re not Black, and young Black boys on the street make you feel nervous, I hope that it clicks that this person is human, he has a soul, he has wants and dreams and wishes. I try to pull all that in the gaze itself and the pose. So that people will be confronted with someone who was so human you must see them as an equal.”


Debbie Millman:

Bisa, as an interviewer, one could be tempted to ask you to help white people try to understand what they can do to better understand how to do this. But I am really loath to ask you to do our emotional labor. But I did want to share this quote in the hope that people might be able to just think about it deeply and learn from it.


Bisa Butler:

Thank you. Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

Bisa, you’ve also stated that you’ve never been drawn to artwork that provokes sympathy and makes you feel sorry for this subject. Are there pieces of art that you’re referring to when talking about that?


Bisa Butler:

I think that any piece of art or any—and that goes for a dance, a manuscript, a book, piece of fiction, a poem—if you’re depicting someone other than your own people, whether it be race, or economic status, or nationality, gender, sexuality, when you’re an outsider looking in, you might have the tendency to romanticize those others. I think it’s so important for us to speak from the inside. You speak up. You tell the world who you are, and what you are. I’m responding to many, many pieces of artwork that I’ve seen. I grew up in the ’80s. Those commercials like, “Feed a child from Africa,” they would show a Black child with a fly on them. Although we’re not feeding the children intellectually in this country, not the Black ones or the white ones, by giving them a false education, sense of self.


Bisa Butler:

It’s just easy to look outside of yourself and say, “I feel so sorry for you.” But you’re never looking inward. I think about my figures. Actually, before this quarantine happened, I used to always say, “I want the figures to stare us in the eye,” and say, “Don’t feel sorry for me, I might feel sorry for you. You don’t know what family I have. I could have a stronger family bond, more love and more fulfillment in my life than you did and that you have now.” Then it was just ironic that the quarantine hit and the COVID crisis and I’m thinking, They might literally, the souls of these people, just looking like, “You don’t know what’s coming. But don’t feel sorry for me.” This racial reckoning, when I’m looking at photos from the ’40s and ’50s, or even the ’60s, for that matter, and thinking, Oh, wow, they had it rough. I think all of us, I hope, are finally getting it, like, “No, we have it rough, and get our shit together.”


Debbie Millman:

You have also used momentous events and people to create quilts that comment on history and the stories that we tell about it. One of my favorite pieces of yours is called The Safety Patrol, which has just been acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago and will be in your upcoming solo exhibition, beginning at the end of the year. In The Safety Patrol, you play with artistic conventions and expectations. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the piece and why you chose this particular group of children, and what they signify in the piece.


Bisa Butler:

Well, that photo was taken by a man named Charles Harris in Pittsburgh. This was taken right, I think, 1949. It’s almost turn of the decade. I was attracted to this image of this little boy, taller than the other kids, with this cap on his head, like he was official. He has the Safety Patrol belt on. He’s holding back all of his little classmates from crossing the street. I think it’s almost six or seven of them. That’s what initially drew me in. Who was this little man child who isn’t so much in charge of his peers? That’s what I do, that I just collect interesting photos.


Bisa Butler:

At the same time, Trayvon Martin had been killed, gunned down on the yard, in his father’s neighborhood. It was this big debate going around between Black and white people. A lot of us lost things differently. One of my daughter’s friends told me, “I mean, it’s so obvious. This obviously wasn’t about race. I mean, right?” I was just like, “Oh, my gosh. We’re on different planets at this point.” This particular woman, she was a white woman who had … she had adopted some Black children, some Black children. I thought, “This is tragically wrong now because you don’t understand that your children have a target on their backs just like Trayvon.” I was just really, really upset.


Bisa Butler:

I was sitting down watching the news with my dad. I think we were watching CNN. I was telling my father, like, “How are the kids going to make it? How can they live like this, being thought of as less than human, that their lives don’t matter, that any person in a car who proclaims themselves to be neighborhood watch can just kill them, and not even be charged with a crime? Nothing.” My father would say, “This is not your world for them. They will know what to do because they are growing up in this. It’s not our world anymore. It’s theirs. They are going to know how to handle this level of violence and racism.”


Bisa Butler:

I felt I was able to take a breath and be like, “OK, this is true. They will adapt, and they will develop methods to survive.” I thought about that photo that I had found of that little boy, and it reminded me of that saying, “It’s a child who will lead them.” The adults, we can be confused and terrified. But they are ready. I was compelled to portray each child. Show that they’re all individuals. The boy in the middle, his arms are spread out like in a protective manner, but it’s also sacrificial, like the Crucifix. He’s sacrificing himself. If a car comes by, he’d be the one who would be hit, because he’s further out, and he’s holding the other children back.


Bisa Butler:

All of the fabric I chose on there and I was trying to give them each a personality. You look at their faces, some are shy, some are sweet, some look like little tricksters and the jokesters. I want people to see each one of them is valuable, each one of them is an individual.


Debbie Millman:

Bisa, their entire lives are projected into the faces of those people that are in your piece. I can’t help but hope that the quilt can convey that all Black children need to be seen and respected and protected in looking at this work.


Bisa Butler:

One more thing I’ll say that the boy in the front, I put his Safety Patrol belt, I switched it out and I used a piece of kente on there. That’s a nod to my father in Ghana. Kente was used for royal people, wealthy people, high esteem. You only wore it on special occasions. The way it goes across his body like that, I wanted to say, “This little child has high honors, and he is somebody worthwhile.”


Debbie Millman:

There are entire universes in every quilt that you make. The last thing I want to ask you about is your big solo exhibit that is happening at the Art Institute of Chicago later this year. I believe that it’s work that is moving from the Katonah Museum. Is that correct?


Bisa Butler:

Yeah, that’s right. The Katonah Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago are working in partnership to present my work from my very first piece. I’m going to be showing my piece that I made of my grandmother.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, good.


Bisa Butler:

Then going all the way up to pieces that I just finished this past winter. It’s about 25 pieces in the exhibit. You’ll be able to see that evolution of me doing just faces and then doing faces and torsos and family friends. You’ll also see my style get more precise, and even now through the quarantine working, I’ve gotten better in portraying minute emotions and expressions, very subtle. I’m really excited about it.


Debbie Millman:

I cannot wait to see it. Bisa, the writer Christina Nafziger said this about your work: “They are stoic, monumental, full of rich detail in both the expressiveness of the subject and the pulsating patterns. There are voices in the fabric, and they will be heard.”


Bisa Butler:

I love that.


Debbie Millman:

I want to thank you for sharing your voice and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.


Bisa Butler:

Thank you so much, Debbie. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed listening to your podcast. I’m thrilled to finally be on here.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you. You can see Bisa Butler’s work at her gallery’s website, www.claireoliver.com, and on Instagram @bisabutler. Until October, you can see her solo exhibition of work at the Katonah Museum of Art, and beginning in November, at the Art Institute of Chicago.


Debbie Millman:

This is the 16th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters. I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman