Rising textile art star Bisa Butler on how to use fabrics like paint and the kind of art she finds hopelessly boring

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New Jersey-based fiber artist Bisa Butler has had a surprisingly eventful year. The artist, who creates large-scale and brilliantly colored quilted portraits of African Americans, made his solo debut at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem in late February. Meanwhile, his first museum exhibition at the Katonah Art Museum, which was slated for March, just opened to the public after the lockdown. (After that, he will head to the Art Institute of Chicago, which recently acquired one of his works.)

For his part, Butler has spent the last few months working in his studio and translating the old black-and-white photographs of African Americans who inspire him.in his intricately assembled, kaleidoscopically colored quilts. Both a celebration of black identity and the centuries-old African-American quilt-making tradition, her textile works can take hundreds of hours to create.

We recently caught up with Butler about studio life, her favorite curators, and why she is particularly excited about portraying a stylish pair of shoes.

Bisa Bulter at work in her studio. Courtesy of the artist.

What are the most essential items in your studio and why?

My razor sharp micro-point scissors; my fabrics; and my long-arm sewing machine, which I nicknamed The beast.

Sharp, tiny scissors are an absolute necessity for me – I use them like an artist uses a brush. They can determine the accuracy of my image and the speed at which I can create it. A dull pair of scissors can make anything I cut out look jagged and sloppy, a fuzzy line as opposed to a deliberate line. If I’m stuck with a dull pair of scissors I’m so frustrated that I might not work at all.

My fabrics are my paintings; they are what I use to create shapes and forms, express an idea and flesh out a portrait. I use African and Dutch silk, lace, velvet and wax cottons. My silks sparkle and create an atmosphere. Wax printed fabrics evoke history and in many cases have names that refer to African traditions, allegories, folk tales, historical events and people.

“The Beast” is my 12 foot long arm quilt machine. I just received it in May and it takes up an entire room. The Beast allowed me to expand my work and also allowed me to sew more freestyle.

Is there a photo you can send of your work in progress?

In progress "The value of a man" (2020)

Ongoing by Bisa Butler The value of a man (2020)

What is the studio task on your schedule tomorrow that you are looking forward to the most?

I am very excited to create a pair of Dutch waxed cotton high heel oxford shoes for the grandma figure in my latest work of art. It may take me 10-12 hours to finish the shoes as they will be made up of hundreds small pieces of fabric. When I finish a good pair of shoes I feel so satisfied and II look forward to this feeling. Pointed shoes are the icing on the cake for me.

What atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

While II work, I prefer to listen to podcasts or audiobooks or watch movies and YouTube. If it’s too quiet, I get bored easily. At the moment I listen to Claude Debussy, whom I prefer if I write, or if II am very stressed. My favorite song is “Reverie”. I just finished listening to a Chadwick Boseman inspired playlist on Tidal – there were a lot of James Brown and Kendrick Lamar there. One song that really inspires me is “All The Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and SZA. SZA is from my hometown and we went to the same high school, 20 years apart.

Bulter at work in his workshop.  Courtesy of the artist.

Bulter at work in his workshop. Courtesy of the artist.

What trait do you admire most in a work of art? What trait do you despise the most?

The beauty and the emotional and social bond that a work of art can create. I can get lost in a photograph of Gordon Parks, just imagining the lives of his subjects and appreciating the sheer beauty of his composition. I find Amy Sherald’s paintings striking and evocative; they let me in.

Some works of art are just too simplified for me. I’m not a fan of large, mostly blank canvases with a single line on them. They annoy me instantly and I usually don’t even bother reading the statement.

What snack could your studio not function without?

I find it difficult to function in my workshop without my sparkling water, the Perrier in a cold glass bottle is essential. Late at night, I have to have a nice hot cup of herbal tea and honey to keep me going.

Pringles chips are my guilty pleasure, but if they’re not in front of me, they’re out of my mind.

Courtesy of the artist.

View of the studio, courtesy of the artist.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

My favorite artists at the moment include Adebunmi Gbadebo, who does incredible works of art sculpted into African American hair, the unique Faith Ringgold, Deborah Roberts, Ebony Patterson and Shawn Theodore.

Conservatives who really impress me are Thelma Golden, Ashley James (the first African-American curator at the Guggenheim), Larry Ossei-Mensah, Naima Keith, Destinee Ross Sutton (who is only 25), and Michele Wije and Erica Warren, who organized my very first museum exhibitions at the Katonah Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, respectively. Erica and Michele made me see my work in a whole new light and inspired me to reach new heights.

Some amazing thinkers and activists who inspire me are Kimberly Drew, Tamika D. Mallory, Kimberly Latrice Jones, and Nikole Hannah-Jones. Reading what they write and listening to them speak sets me on fire.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get out of it?

I look for inspiration in music, cinema, art and even current affairs. I do a number of things: listen to James Baldwin’s speeches, watch Kerry James Marshall talk about his work, go to art exhibitions, watch a documentary about a social activist, or even just watch a funny movie. Talking to my friends and family can get me out of trouble because they listen to me and have great suggestions.

What is the last exhibition that you saw (virtual or not) that marked you?

The last exhibit I went to that blew me away was the Charles White exhibit at MoMA. He’s one of my artistic heroes and I admire his incredible work and the fact that he succeeded in a time of segregation and oppression. One virtual exhibition I attended that amazed me was the work of Latoya Hobbs who just won the Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize.

Butler bases her quilts on black and white photographs of African Americans she has met over the years.

Butler bases her quilts on black and white photographs of African Americans she has met over the years.

If you had to create a moodboard, what would be on it right now?

My moodboard would be made up of images that will inspire my next work. I have tons of old photographs of unnamed and named African Americans saved on my phone that I look forward to creating works of art. Almost all of the photos would be black and white because that’s what I love to look at – I love to reimagine the world in my own color scheme. I would also have some fantastic print pieces that I want to buy or make myself. I love fashion so there would be a bunch of amazing flowing chiffon dresses as well.

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