Erica Warren, associate curator of textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago, was making a routine visit to Expo Chicago in 2018, when she and another staff member made a happy discovery — a virtually unknown quilt artist named Bisa Butler.
“The colors, the dynamism, the figures themselves, the scale — there is so much that draws you in,” Warren said of Butler’s creations. “You see the work from far away, and you immediately need to get close and see what is happening. And when you do get close, you realize that it is indeed textile and not painting.”
Three years later, in what is just her fourth solo exhibition anywhere, the lifelong New Jersey artist is showcased at the Art Institute, a huge milestone in a now-skyrocketing career that is still in many ways just getting started.
“Bisa Butler: Portraits,” which was co-organized by the Katonah (N.Y.) Museum of Art, has been extended through Sept. 6 after having been closed for several months along with the rest of Art Institute because of COVID-19 protocols.
Butler’s works build on a long tradition of African American quilt-making in the United States, including the now-famous artists from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, but they differ in their unusual painterliness and focus on portraiture.
Each of her quilts feature life-size figures and incorporate hundreds, sometimes even thousands of bits of fabric, much of it from Africa. The biggest work she has done to date is 9 by 11½ feet, “The Warmth of Other Sons,” and it took six months to complete with her working 10 to 12 hours a day.
Butler uses bright, non-objective colors to depict faces and exposed skin and bold patterns for her subjects’ apparel. She was inspired in part by AfriCOBRA, an avant-garde Chicago collective formed in 1960s that used a “Kool-Aid” color palette that drew on African textiles and street clothes of the time.
The 47-year-old artist began her artistic studies at Howard University as a painter, but she gradually moved toward quilts. As she approached graduation, she felt her paintings were too photo-realistic and had no “pizzazz.”
One of her professors noticed her interest in fashion and suggested she add fabric to her works as a way of injecting more of herself into them. He also advised she look at Romare Bearden, and the celebrated African American collage artist quickly became a major influence.
She didn’t make her first quilt until graduate school as part of a class assignment, and she went on that year to create a quilted portrait of her grandmother and grandfather — “Francis and Violette (Grandparents)” (2001) — that is included in the show.
From 2005 through 2018, Butler taught middle-school and then high-school art, creating her quilts on the side based on historical family photographs or images of friends. When she began showing her work at New York’s Claire Oliver Gallery in 2017, she wanted broaden her scope, so she turned to public-domain, Depression-era photographs in the National Archives as source material.
Most of the everyday Black figures she finds in the archives are unnamed, and she seeks to cast a fresh spotlight on them. She imagines her subjects, like the seated man, hat in hand, in “I Am Not Your Negro” (2019), saying: “This is what I stood for. This is what I did. You may not know my name. But I am not dusty in a book. I am not forgotten. I still have a presence in this world.”
She wants to in a sense reanimate these forgotten Black figures from decades ago and imbue them with dignity and humanity.
“The problems we are having in our country,” she said, “are problems we’ve been having for years. It’s man’s inhumanity to man, not seeing each other as equal or as valid. So, I’m hoping when people look at my artwork, they see a human being, somebody who deserves respect or just acknowledgement.”
The exhibition features 22 of Butler’s quilts, including “The Safety Patrol,” which the Art Institute acquired in 2019. The 7½-foot-wide work depicts a determined school crossing guard protecting six fellow pupils. According to Warren, it has become an “instant icon” in the museum’s textile collection with multiple appealing qualities.
“That’s one of the great things about Bisa’s work,” the curator said. “It can be so very many things, and it offers so many different stories and points of entry. And that is why it has already proven to be so popular and Bisa is seeing such a strong flourishing of her career.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.