Bisa Butler’s portrait of Harriet Tubman began with a minuscule black-and-white carte de visite. The 19th-century photograph featured the famed Underground Railroad conductor when she was around 40, about the age Butler was at the time. “I blew the photo up,” Butler says. “‘Is she looking at me? She is. What would she think of everything that I think I have hard in life?’”
By 2021, Butler’s large quilted portrait, I Go to Prepare a Place for You, was hanging in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Made entirely out of fabric, it portrays Tubman in a kaleidoscope of colors. Her skin is a contrast of cool blues and fiery reds, capturing her need to hide along with her tenacity and courage. The background of sunflowers symbolizes the constancy of the North Star as Tubman’s unwavering faith. The gold, orange and green in her skirt suggest her African heritage.
A renowned portraitist, Butler has done for quilt-making what Matisse did for paper-cutting: elevating a humble technique to a high art. For years, quilting has been dismissed by the fine arts world as decorative craft or domestic labor. Butler’s stunning work has helped shatter that barrier. She made her first portrait quilt, Francis and Violette (Grandparents), while pursuing a master’s in arts education in 2001. Today, her life-size quilts hang in museums across the country. She focuses on people of African descent but avoids representational skin tone. Her subjects shimmer in brilliant hues of fuchsia, imperial blue or acid green, with a purple lip, an orange cheekbone or a turquoise temple for emphasis.
Butler always begins with a photograph. Her sources vary widely: Farm Security Administration archives, a 1909 Rufus Holsinger portrait, Janette Beckman’s fiercely feminist 1987 photo of rappers Salt-N-Pepa. (The last of these was a suggestion from her husband, John Butler, a longtime professional DJ.)
She takes time to divine her subjects’ spirits—studying their gazes and stances, their clothing and accessories. “I grew up looking at my family photos, which were black and white,” she says. “I was so curious about these people and places I would never know. My maternal grandmother would talk to me about her Louisiana Creole relatives. My father spoke to me about the liberation of Ghana, his birthplace, in 1954, and I wish I had been there.”
Butler enlarges each image on photo paper, using a Sharpie to delineate light-to-dark gradation. “I use that like a dressmaker’s pattern,” she says. “I cut shapes based off my sketch and layer them until I have an image that is an impression of the original.” Over the decades, she has collected snippets and swaths of material, which she stores in large plastic bins: silk, wool, lace, velvet, hand-dyed batiks, vibrant African Dutch waxes, holographic vinyl.
“I feel my mother and grandmother’s presence, because some of the fabrics I use are still some of their fabrics,” she tells me in her Jersey City studio. “When you open the bin, the scent of jasmine and rose comes out. My mother was Muslim and wore Muslim oils. I don’t know how many years it takes or how long that oil is going to smell like her.”
The selection, cutting, pinning and layering process consumes hundreds of hours. “After all of that, I load my quilt top onto my quilting machine and stitch it together with the batting and the backing fabric,” she says. Until last August, Butler worked from her home in South Orange, New Jersey, annexing the dining room table and living room floor, stitching by hand or on a standard household sewing machine. Today, in her studio, she uses two giant longarm quilting machines affectionately named Godzilla and Godzuki after the 1970s Hanna-Barbera children’s series. “This is my first professional space,” Butler says.
She gets a lot of portrait requests, but she only takes the ones she finds personally meaningful. Last year, the New York Times asked her to make a quilt of the late African American science fiction writer Octavia Butler. “I used to go to the Library of Congress when I was in school in 1994 to read her unpublished manuscripts at those tables with the little green light,” the artist says. She took the assignment. Looking at the finished quilt in person, you can see the writer’s silver hair glinting with rhinestones and sparkle vinyl. Butler the artist wanted to capture the celestial realm occupied by Butler the science fiction writer—an intellect that is “always thinking beyond.” There’s a shape on the collar that looks like a UFO, but Butler says it’s a piece of Nana Benz fabric from Togo. “It was made to celebrate African women who felt that children were the greatest blessing,” she says.
In a 2017 portrait called The Tea (as in, “to spill the tea” or gossip), Butler started with a Depression-era photograph by Russell Lee of three women from Chicago’s South Side standing together on Easter Sunday. “I like to play with skin color as emotion,” Butler says. “Red, pink and yellow represent passion and love. They can even signify anger. It depends on their intensity.” The women in The Tea have cool-hued complexions, reflecting their dignity and refinement.
“When you look at her quilts, you know from the facial features that the subject matter is African American,” says Yale University Art Gallery curator Michele Wije, who co-organized the 2020-2021 exhibition Bisa Butler: Portraits at the Katonah Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. “But Bisa allows the viewer to step away from that idea, because she uses all of these vivid colors that express emotions.” Wije likens Butler to German Expressionists, the early 20th-century artists who strategically employed unnatural flesh tones in their paintings. “You’re put in a different relationship with the person.”
When Butler was earning her bachelor’s in fine arts at Howard University in the early 1990s, the dean of her department was Jeff Donaldson, one of five co-founders of the Black artist collective AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). The Chicago-based art movement coined the term “Kool-Aid colors”—a descriptor Butler embraces. “If you didn’t have money, you could paint with Kool-Aid,” Butler says. “It was about self-expression as a Black artist, creating your own color palette outside of the European painting tradition.”
In her free time, she made African print mini dresses but didn’t yet realize she could combine her passion with her major. During her pregnancy in her last semester at Howard, she found it increasingly difficult to paint because the smell made her nauseated. “I had my first daughter and thought I would never paint again,” Butler says. “She was an active toddler, and I needed to keep all toxic materials away from her.”
After Butler earned her master’s from Montclair State University, she taught art full-time until 2018. Her job involved building students’ self-esteem. “Teenagers are so sensitive,” she says. “If their neighbor next to them draws really well, and they don’t, they shut down—‘I don’t want to do it. It’s stupid anyway.’” She wanted her students to feel good about themselves. “The emotional atmosphere in the classroom is just as important as what you’re teaching.” No matter how spent she was each evening, she’d come home and devote at least half an hour to quilting.
Like a painter wielding a brush and mixing glazes, Butler creates light and shadow, contours and shading. But she does this entirely through the textures, patterns and placements of her fibers. “There is zero paint on this artwork,” Butler frequently reminds viewers when she posts her work on social media.
The history of quilt-making “demonstrates the rich diversity of American culture,” says Erica Warren, an art historian who co-organized the 2020-2021 Chicago exhibition with Wije. In the 21st century, quilters from the remote hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Alabama—a Black artist community with roots going back to the 1800s—finally received their due, with exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and pieces at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New Museum displayed Faith Ringgold’s “story quilts,” which use fabric and (unlike Butler’s works) paint to depict the life, identity and history of Black people. In many ways, Kehinde Wiley, painter of the famed portrait of former President Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery, is part of this renaissance. His portraits riff on old European masters, but he renders Black subjects against flamboyant floral backgrounds. Yet even by these standards, Butler is pushing the limits. “Bisa is using all these coded symbols to imagine her subjects, embodying who they were,” says Warren. “This takes portraiture to another emotional or cerebral level.”
Her largest quilt to date, completed in 2022 and measuring 9 by 13 feet, is titled Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go!—The Harlem Hellfighters. Now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection, it took nearly a year to complete. “I chose the photo just from perusing the National Archives,” says Butler. “I thought, ‘Oh, wow. Look at these guys. They look so great. Who the hell are the Hellfighters? How is this name so badass and I’ve never heard it before in my life?’” The men in the 1919 photo were members of the 369th Infantry Regiment. The unit earned its nickname after showing valor alongside French soldiers in the trenches even as white American soldiers refused to serve with them. Butler’s resplendent portrait includes a fabric with lions that appears in African marketplaces under the name “I Am the Guard by the Gates.” “That represents these men as the guardians of democracy,” Butler says. Another fabric in the portrait features letters and hearts. “The nickname for that fabric is ‘Love Letter,’” says Butler. “I thought about movies I’ve seen and how many young men died with a letter in their pocket to their mother or their sister.”
The week after my studio visit, I drove to Pleasantville, New York, to see “Materfamilias,” Butler’s gallery exhibition at the Gordon Parks Foundation, the culmination of her 2022 Gordon Parks artist fellowship. There I got to see a shimmery new brocade portrait based on a photograph by Gordon Parks himself. In 1956, Life magazine sent the pioneering Black photographer to Mobile, Alabama, to cover Black Americans living under Jim Crow laws. One of his iconic photographs, Department Store, featured an aunt and niece standing on a sidewalk under a neon sign that said “Colored Entrance.”
In the original, both subjects wore pale, elegant lace dresses, a fallen slip strap famously grazing the woman’s shoulder. In Butler’s version, the little girl, Shirley Kirksey (later Blackwell), is dressed in whimsical fabrics with swirls evoking giant lollipops. “Most of the fabrics for the little girl were chosen to symbolize things that my own little girls loved—candy and toys,” says Butler.
To dress the aunt, Joanne Wilson, Butler built a skirt out of a cloth named “Michelle Obama’s Bag,” made after the first lady’s 2009 visit to Africa and the handbag she carried on the tarmac. “While she may have lived in the Jim Crow South, there is a future beyond,” Butler says of the woman in the picture. “There will one day be an African American first lady.” Around her waist, Wilson wears a popular African pattern called “Obaapa,” or “good woman,” which symbolizes her care for her young niece. The fabric of her purple blouse was designed by City of Joy, a refuge in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo for women recovering from war-related violence. Its subtly abstracted flower petals commemorate the refugees’ physical healing.
The “Colored Entrance” sign at the top of the artwork is printed with plants and covered with dark red stitching. “I chose the green fabric with white flower buds because it reminded me of the way I’ve seen cotton look on a vine,” says Butler, alluding to the role of African American labor in the cotton industry. Her friend and fellow New Jersey artist Ellen Weisbord suggested the textured red velvet fabric Butler used for the lettering “because it resembles veins and red blood. I want the sign to invoke the horror and trauma of chattel slavery on a human body.”
It’s easy to miss because Butler’s Day-Glo colors are so magnificent, but there’s an inevitable thread of tragedy that runs through her work. “People died and are still dying because of the color of their skin,” she says. At the same time, her colors shift the focus away from skin-deep assumptions and toward the interior lives of her subjects. Her source photographs capture static moments from history, but through Butler’s eyes, the people within them become vibrantly alive—a celebration of African heritage and a jubilant renewal, a testimony to Black strength and Black joy.
Editor's Note, July 24, 2023: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Bisa Butler’s quilting process as appliqué. Appliqué is the process of sewing fabric onto a base layer, which Butler uses to create the portraits on the quilt top.