Bisa Butler, Southside Sunday Morning, 2018, private collection Credit: © Bisa Butler. Photo by Margaret Fox

The first and only time I’ve seen Bisa Butler’s artwork “in the flesh” was at EXPO 2018, at Navy Pier.

I’d never heard of her before catching sight of her extraordinary portraits on the walls of the Claire Oliver Gallery booth. EXPO featured 135 galleries that year, displaying the work of thousands of artists. I was, as usual, cruising the aisles with an eye out for the Chicago folk. Claire Oliver is a New York gallery; Butler lives in New Jersey, but it didn’t matter. The work was irresistible: nearly life-sized images of people who seemed to have stepped from some familiar moment in the last century into an alternative universe of swimming color and cacophonous pattern—their skin glowing ocher and fuchsia and blue, their nuanced expressions and mostly direct gaze fully readable. From a distance they registered as paintings, though uneasily. The medium seemed indefinite. Paint on fabric? Mixed media collage?

It was only when I got nose to nose with them that I saw—with disbelief—what they really are. Butler is a quilt maker. She “paints” in fabric.

I wasn’t the only one who had this reaction. Erica Warren, associate curator of textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago, says she also happened upon Butler’s work at EXPO 2018 and was “blown away by it.” When she inquired about purchasing a piece for the museum’s collection, she learned that all of the work had sold within the first hour of the EXPO preview.

The Art Institute wound up purchasing a subsequent piece, The Safety Patrol, which will be on view here for the first time in a solo exhibit, “Bisa Butler: Portraits,” opening to the public at the Art Institute next week. The exhibit will include 22 of Butler’s quilts, most of them created in the last few years, though she’s hardly an emerging artist: she’s been doing this kind of work for two decades.

So why haven’t we seen it before now? There’s a history of marginalization of fabric art and quilting as “women’s industry,” a subject Warren explores in the show’s generously illustrated catalogue. And then there’s what Butler told me in a phone interview last week: “I think the main deal is the segregation of the art world.”

As an undergraduate art major at Howard University, Butler focused on painting—“sketching, studying the human form, learning to achieve three-dimensional effects just using light and dark or color.” But her mother and grandmother had taught her to sew (and to appreciate fabric) as a child. She made her first quilt in 2001, while completing a master’s degree in art education. Conceived as a gift for her grandmother, and based on her grandparents’ wedding photograph, it set her trajectory: “I think more like a painter,” she says, “but my medium is fabric.”

Vintage photos that capture Black life and history, like those from her family’s albums and, more recently, from the Library of Congress, are her starting point. Eliminating backgrounds, she enlarges and sometimes combines them, sketches and cuts patterns, and selects, layers, and stitches fabric—intentionally symbolic, often African prints. It’s a painstaking process: her latest, a 10-by-12-foot Great Migration piece, took 2500 hours to complete.

Butler first exhibited her quilts in 2003, and continued to make them during 13 years of teaching art in New Jersey high schools, showing mostly in galleries operated by friends or friends of friends. “I wasn’t trying only to show or sell my art at Black galleries, but those were the people around me, and those were the opportunities I had,” she says. “If I did a group show, it would be at something like an African American museum in the city. The mainstream art scene in New York wasn’t aware that I was doing anything.”

That changed in 2017, when Oliver walked past a window in Harlem, spotted Butler’s work in a benefit show of art by Howard University alumni, and began taking it to the international fairs. The pieces she brought to EXPO two years ago included Southside Sunday Morning, based on an iconic image by Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee, captured in Chicago on Easter Sunday, 1941.

The striking thing about Lee’s photo of five elegantly dressed Black boys posed on the hood of a vintage automobile is their direct confrontation of the viewer. The striking thing about Butler’s version of it, which will be included in the Art Institute exhibit, is how much she turns up the heat on that.  v

“Bisa Butler: Portraits” runs November 14-April 19 and was co-organized with the Katonah Museum of Art, where it was on view over the summer.