“children of the rainbow”

I’ve been dying to share this episode with you! My podcast guest today is Bisa Butler, a New Jersey based artist who, “paints with fabric”. Looooove! I wrote about her jaw dropping, life-size portraits, made entirely from bits of beautiful colorful patterned fabric, a few months ago {posted below} … and then immediately reached out to invite her onto the podcast. We cover everything from being a child of the rainbow {that will make sense in a minute} and flirting with Tupac, to how she found her way to quilting and eventually to where she is now… which is an incredibly exciting place to be. As we speak, she has just arrived in Chicago for the opening of her exhibit at The Art Institute of Chicago! WHAT!? Anyway, we’ll get into all of that and more. You can listen right up there underneath Bisa and “Dahomey Amazon,”, or subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotify.

First, the pieces I wrote about a few months ago. Again, THIS IS ALL FABRIC:

Allllllll fabric!? Stunning. And her subjects? They tell the African American side of the story about American life, because as Bisa’s artist statement says:

“History is the story of men and women, but the narrative is controlled by those who hold the pen. My community has been marginalized for hundreds of years. While we have been right beside our white counterparts experiencing and creating history, our contributions and perspectives have been ignored, unrecorded, and lost.”

I love that she has chosen to tell these stories in bits of vintage fabric. Here is the first story she ever told that way, during her Masters program in 2001:

The second piece is the rework from a year later. Look how much she’d honed her skills! This is a portrait of “Grandpa Zakani”.

Next, “A New Dawn, 2020”, which features the young boy Bisa talked about:

So beautiful in so many ways… his repaired overalls, bare feet covered in a pair of Converse, the WWII airplanes on his pants, all of it. Oh, and I had to throw in a sample of  “Devaluation” so you could see what Bisa was referring to. She hasn’t used this fabric in any of her pieces yet, but it’s ready and waiting.

Ummmm, how did we not talk about either of these huge career milestones? :

The cover of TIME Magazine, and a feature in the New York Times! Clearly I’ll have to have her back on so we can discuss this properly. That fabulous shot of Bisa from the Times article was taken by @gioncarlovalentine.

Up next… oh you know, just a giant show at The Art Institute of Chicago that happens to include an absolutely huge piece {144″ x 108″}, titled “The Warmth of Other Sons”. Bisa spent seven months making this. Take a peek:

Gah! She just posted this jumping-for-joy photo to Instagram! Oh my word, can you even imagine seeing your work like that? I would sob. I’M SO HAPPY FOR YOU, BISA! She also included this caption with a sneak peek of the exhibit and I just have to share:

“I am beyond grateful for this opportunity to share my work at such a beautiful institution. I was told today that not only am I the first African American woman to exhibit in the 2nd floor European Painting galleries, but I am the first living artist in the museums 141 year history. I walk in the path left by the African American artists who have come before me, and I hope to leave a path for others to follow.”

I’m not crying, you’re crying. Oof. Okay, deep breath. Back to that insane work… I mean, seriously, the amount of detail in that one piece alone is staggering. And where does this magic happen? In her dining room, of course:

Yep, that’s Bisa’s crazy sewing machine… I kinda wanna take it for a spin around the block, don’t you?

And finally, let’s wrap things up with these two stylish graduates:

Ha! I had to, because Grad 91 RULES! Thank you to Bisa for hanging out with me for so long, sharing all of her stories, and for emailing me her graduation photo!

Isn’t it kind of wonderful that a little girl who started school at “Children of the Rainbow” is now creating artwork filled with colorful, rainbow-hued people? I think that’s exactly how this was meant to play out. Bisa, if you happen to be reading this from Chicago, have an amazing time! What an incredible, well-deserved moment for you. And of course, huge thanks to all of you for listening. There will be more ART FOR YOUR EAR next weekend. ~ Danielle

Other links:

  1. Bisa on Instagram
  2. Claire Oliver Gallery, Harlem
  3. Howard University
  4. AfriCOBRA / Jeff Donaldson
  5. A Big Important Art Book – Now With Women 
  6. Simone Leigh, Venice 2022
  7. Montclair State University
  8. Dutch wax fabric
  9. Natalie Baxter {textile guns}
  10. Art 1-54 Fair
  11. Art Institute of Chicago: “Bisa Butler – Portraits” Nov 16, 2020 ~ April 19, 2021


comments (6)

  1. Cheryl Hansen /// 11.15.2020 /// 4:25pm

    Wow! What an interesting back story. Such wonderful inspiration for her art and going to full scale. Reminded me of an installation done by Lubaina Himid, Invisible Strategies which she won the Turner Prize. Yes, I could have listened to 5 more hours too!!! Probably would want to watch as well-that long arm machine. Love it!

  2. Anne Oldenhuis /// 11.17.2020 /// 12:07pm

    Just finished listening to this amazing podcast. To hear Bisa ‘s story gave me goosebumps, it was so emotional, and breathtaking. Especially the part about black history, and how she discovered her painting with fabric. Love, love, love.

  3. the jealous curator /// 11.18.2020 /// 6:34am

    right!? so powerful and poetic.

  4. Windy Lampson /// 11.21.2020 /// 8:40am

    Thank you so much- I enjoyed this episode SO much! I teach high school art, and I already have a lesson where I teach students a process for critiquing art and I use one of Bisa’s works to get them started. After hearing this episode, I would like change which work I assign them to “critique.” I LOVE the back story that she offers for the boy in the overalls and Converse shoes. Do you know the title of that piece and the year she made it?

  5. Danielle /// 12.09.2020 /// 7:06am

    Sooooo beautiful and super creative. The colors, patterns, & texture are everything – LOVE!

  6. “labor and learning” - fooledbyart /// 06.11.2021 /// 10:28pm

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