Sewing Stories

How do Bisa Butler’s materials and process help her share ideas?

How does Bisa Butler use photos and fabric to share her ideas?

Derek Dudek.

Bisa Butler in her New Jersey studio

Ella drops her chin and looks up from beneath her colorful hat with big, expressive eyes. Light plays across her gold glasses and she reveals just the hint of a smile. Who is the girl in the portrait on the cover? What is her story? 

The artist, Bisa Butler, knows that she can create a narrative in quilted portraits like this one by placing clues throughout the work. The materials an artist uses—from paint and clay to found objects and even food—inherently have meaning. Butler carefully selects colors and fabrics that hold symbolic meaning for each of her portraits, revealing details about her subjects—and herself.

A girl looks up from beneath a colorful hat. She wears gold glasses and a hint of a smile. Who is the girl in the portrait on the cover? What is her story? 

Bisa Butler quilted the fabric portrait. She places clues about the subject throughout the work. She chooses fabrics in different colors and patterns. The fabrics are symbolic. Butler creates a narrative, or story, using materials that have meaning. They represent something about the subjects and about Butler.

Bisa Butler (b. 1973), Francis and Violette (Grandparents), 2001. Quilted fabric and appliquéd. ©Bisa Butler/Courtesy of the artist.

How does Butler use specific fabrics to tell viewers about her subjects?

Personal Portraits

Courtesy of Bisa Butler, Library of Congress.

Butler was born in 1973 and grew up in New Jersey. When she was a graduate student, her professors gave her an assignment to make a portrait. At the time, she was taking a fiber arts class, where she was experimenting with textiles and exploring processes like weaving, felting, and quilting. The artist decided to make a quilted portrait of her grandparents, above, based on a photo of them when they were young, right.

Butler selected fabrics from her grandmother’s fabric collection and quickly realized she could tell a story about her subjects through the patterns and colors she used. For example, Butler included black fabric with purple flowers on it to symbolize her grandmother’s name: Violette. 

The process of quilting itself is also significant. There is a long history of quilting among Black women in America. By using this art form, Butler acknowledges that tradition.

The artist started out making portraits of important people in her life, including her daughters, friends, and family. “My original goal for creating portraits was out of love,” Butler explains. Soon she realized she could make a bigger statement with her work.

Butler was born in 1973. She grew up in New Jersey. When she was in graduate school, her teacher gave her an assignment to make a portrait. Butler was taking a fiber arts class at the time. She learned about weaving, felting, and quilting. Butler made a quilted portrait of her grandparents, shown far right. She based it on a photo of them when they were young, shown above right. 

Butler chose fabrics from her grandmother’s fabric collection. She tells a story about her grandparents with patterns and colors. Butler included black fabric with purple flowers on it. It symbolizes her grandmother’s name: Violette. Butler also honors the long history of Black women quilting in America. 

Extended Family Album

How does this reference photograph from the National Archives relate to Butler’s quilt? 

Butler began experimenting with historical photographs from the National Archives, an administration in Washington, DC, that records documents for legal or historical reasons. These photos are meant to be historical records rather than formal, artistic portraits. In many cases, the image titles are simply descriptive, explaining where and when they were taken and what the subject is doing. 

For Butler, the images offer far more than a record of history. “I think about them like family members,” Butler explains. “If this was my little nephew, I’m trying to portray him as a person—not just a symbol of a child, but an individual child.” 

Like in the portrait of her grandparents, Butler continues to use fabrics and colors with meaning in each quilt she makes. Her 2019 To God and Truth, below, depicts the 1899 baseball team at Morris Brown College, the first Black higher educational institution in Georgia. One of the fabrics she incorporates is a pattern called the beehive. “I thought about a team and this hive having to work together,” the artist explains. “I’m using pattern to tell the story.”

Butler began creating quilts based on photos from the National Archives, which is a library of historical documents in Washington, D.C. People usually don’t consider these photos artistic. The images often have simple titles describing what is happening in each scene. 

Butler thought there was more to these images. “I think about them like family members,” she explains. “If this was my little nephew, I’m trying to portray him as a person. Not just a symbol of a child, but an individual child.”

Butler uses meaningful fabrics to share her ideas about her subjects in these quilted works. In 2019, Butler made To God and Truth, below. It shows the 1899 baseball team at Morris Brown College, the first Black college in Georgia. One of the fabrics she uses has a pattern called the beehive. “I thought about a team and this hive having to work together,” the artist explains. “I’m using pattern to tell the story.” 

Bisa Butler, To God and Truth, 2019. Printed and resist-dyed cottons, cotton velvet, rayon satin, and knotted string, pieced, appliquéd, and quilted. ©Bisa Butler/Courtesy of the artist.

Why might Butler consider the subjects of works like this part of her extended family photo album?

Lifelong Learner

Education has always been important in Butler’s family. Her father was a college president, and her mother was a French teacher. Butler herself was an art teacher for years. “Being a teacher allows you to see things from other people’s perspective,” the artist says. 

This idea is deeply integrated with her portraits and process. As she works on each one, she spends countless hours observing the reference photograph, wondering who the subject was and how she can tell his or her story. “I hope that when people look at my work, that they see that interest in humanity and in the individual.”

Education is important in Butler’s family. Her father was a college president, and her mother taught French. Butler herself was an art teacher for years. “Being a teacher allows you to see things from other people’s perspective,” she says. 

Butler uses this idea in her process. She spends many hours studying the reference photos that inspire her portraits. She wonders who the subjects were. She thinks about how she can capture their stories in her art. “I hope that when people look at my work, that they see that interest in humanity and in the individual,” Butler says. 

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