Bisa Butler’s portraiture and quilting artworks
It was a pivotal moment when Bisa Butler combined portraiture and quilting to create her first eye-catching artwork, and she’s embraced quilted portraits with gusto ever since. Inspired by African American history, family dressmaking traditions and uplifting colours and patterns, Bisa’s art quilts bring forward stories from the past with vibrancy and texture.
Like many wonderful ideas, blending portraiture and quilting came about as a solution to a problem. “I was determined to make a beautiful portrait for my grandmother to show her how much I loved and admired her,” says Bisa. “She sat for me and was so patient, but when I finished the painting, she said I made her look like an ‘old, old woman’. I was so disappointed and realised that I needed to try again.”
While studying fibre arts during her master’s degree, Bisa was given an assignment to make a pictorial quilt and she decided to make a quilted portrait of her grandmother. “My aunt advised me to use a photo of my grandmother that made her look much younger. I finally saw my grandmother as a woman with her own vanities just like anyone else.” Her grandmother’s wedding portrait had been displayed on her dresser for as long as Bisa could remember and she realised that this was a photo her grandmother cherished. Bisa used this photo to create a small quilted artwork of her. “I knew when I finished that I had discovered something new about myself. I could manipulate cloth in a way that truly reflected the image and character of a person that I could never capture with paint.”
Bisa continues to trust her intuition when it comes to choosing photographs for her quilted portraits. “It’s a feeling, a ‘knowing’. When I choose the right subject, I can feel it in my bones,” she says. Bisa is inspired by vintage photographs of everyday people of African American descent. “The people are not identified, nor did many of them ever see their photos in their lifetimes. I want them to get the respect they should’ve gotten in the first place.” Her figures are life-size as Bisa wants the viewer to look eye to eye with her subjects. “I am trying to level the playing field between subject and viewer, past and present, black and white, living and deceased.”
Family traditions also come into play in Bisa’s art. “My mother and grandmother taught me to sew. They were African American women from New Orleans and sewed beautiful clothing.” Bisa incorporates dressmaking fabric, including African printed cotton, silk, velvet and lace, in her quilts. She has a selection of fabrics that her mother and grandmother have given to her and she also uses new fabric sourced online and from local fabric shops. Bisa lives in New Jersey; a short commute from the Garment District in New York City and all the treasures to be found there. Striking patterns and large motifs are signature fabric designs featured in Bisa’s work.
Combining skills she developed during her Fine Arts degree and inspiration from a vintage photograph, Bisa begins her quilt designs with a line sketch. “My drawings are highly detailed because this will become my pattern,” she explains. “I put down layers of cloth the way a painter puts down layers of glazes, carefully cutting each piece to match my sketch. The most challenging part of my process comes next — the piecing. It can take me on average about 200 hours of laying down progressively smaller and smaller pieces of fabric. I stitch everything together on a long-arm quilting machine, which is the easy part. My machine is on a 12-foot-long frame and allows me to effectively draw with the threads.” The stitching is used to show texture, from the kinks and curls of African American hair to expressive laughter lines.
With intricate stitching, a joyful fabric array and bold approach to mixing colours and patterns, Bisa’s quilts convey stories and put a fresh spin on heirloom skills. “I create portraits of people that include many clues of their inner thoughts, their heritage, their actual emotions, and even their future,” she says. “I feel like I am carrying on the tradition of African American quilting into a new form of expression. It is important to learn our traditions or they will be lost to history.”