Bisa Butler tells the stories of the Black men and women that were left out of mainstream history.
Cover Image Credits: Instagram/ Bisa Butler
There are many men and women who have stood for something daring and great but have gone unnoticed through the annals of history. One world-famous quiltmaker has decided to honor the Black men and women whose contributions and stories have been overlooked or even forgotten. Bisa Butler is an artist who creates exquisite quilts that aren't just colorful but also have a narrative element to it. She identifies herself as “essentially a portrait artist who uses fibers and quilting as a medium”. Butler likes to craft pictures of people using the same conceptual styles that a regular painter would use on a canvas.
Her quilts are truly mindblowing and are of the likes we have never seen before. You'd usually correlate a quilt to a thick shade of color with simple geometric designs but Butler uses the fabric to illuminate and honor Black men and women whose stories deserve to be told. The artist has been formally trained as a painter but did not feel inspired enough to continue her practice after she graduated. When she was in her undergraduate school for art education, she created her first small quilt with a landscape design. “I realized at that moment that I could use all-fiber as a medium,” she tells My Modern Met. “My grandmother and mother sewed every day making clothing and home decor, and they taught me the power of being able to make something for yourself.” And from a logistical standpoint, quilting was appealing. “I could manipulate fiber and fabric while sitting next to my small children.”
Soon after, she began to make her first quilted portraits, based on members of her family. “Now I choose my subjects by scouring hundreds of public databases for photographs that will spark my curiosity,” she shares. Butler expresses them by starting with a detailed line drawing that becomes her pattern. Then begins her work with fabric. “I put down layers of cloth the way a painter puts down layers of glazes, “she explains, “carefully cutting each piece to match my sketch.” This part of the process can take about 200 hours, and afterward, she stitches everything together on a long arm quilting machine. “My machine is on a 12-foot-long frame and allows me to effectively draw with the threads. I use stitches to show texture like the kinks and curls of African American hair.”
By undertaking this noble initiative, Butler says that she feels as though she is helping to carry on the tradition of African American quilting and taking it into a new form of expression. “It is important to learn our traditions or they will be lost to history,” she says. “African Americans originally quilted out of the necessity to stay warm in places unlike their homelands and we had very little resources. Our quilts were made of patches because those small rags were all we had to spare in a time when we wore our clothes until they literally fell apart.“
"My quilts are reminders of those times with their materials, and some of the subjects themselves are reminders, but the difference is they are made simply to be seen not used. The fabrics I use are new and very expensive, but the tradition is still carried on because mixed in with my new fabrics are pieces of cloth given to me by my mother and grandmother. I am making something with my own two hands just like my forbearers.”