Bisa Butler’s stunning art quilts are vivid, bold, and lavish in detail. Made from hundreds of pieces of cloth and millions of stitches each, every one is a portrait. A painting in textiles.
Originally a high school teacher, she began quilting with the leftover fabrics from her mother and grandmother, who made both quilts and clothing. Now, she uses vintage African fabrics as often as she can get her hands on them. Many were limited run – people in the know can trace them back to a factory and a month. Each work takes hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours of hand-piecing and hand-stitching.
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“I couldn’t afford to buy new fabrics, and they had so many remnants that I didn’t need big pieces. I started out using mostly dressmaker’s fabrics,” said Butler. “Traditional quilters would never be using silk and lace and chiffon all together, but those were what was available. My mother had bits of fabric from wool to gaberdine to tweeds and my mindset was, ‘What can I do with this?’”
When asked by Artnet, Butler confessed that faces are the hardest, and she often has to redo them over and over. She keeps a stash of the not-quite-right-yet ones; she knows she’ll finish them eventually, but working on them for too long at a time just makes them worse.
Butler has stretched the boundaries of what a quilt is. With painstaking patience, her intricate piecing and quilting becomes photorealistic portraits in trance-like colors. Many of the subjects of her stunning art quilts come from anonymous vintage photos, but she sews contemporary, famous figures as well. She has stitched portraits of Selika Lazevski, activist Porche Bennet-Bey, and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke. This last one will appear as the cover of Burke’s new memoir, available this fall.
Butler had her first major public exhibition in late 2020, at New York’s Katonah Museum. Her current solo show, which may be even more prestigious, is on display now at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Image: Bisa Butler via Instagram