What fingerprints do we leave behind that tell the story of who we are? Bisa Butler has taken that sentiment to heart by creating jaw-dropping quilted masterpieces that not only celebrate her culture but stitch a story for future generations to be proud of! So very often, it’s these cultural artifacts that educate us more than history books.

Take a look at an image of Bisa Butler’s work and you are immediately struck with the depth of color. It’s unlike anything most of us have ever seen. Stunning portraits of people, ordinary and world-famous, rendered in dazzling color. Look a little closer, though, and your jaw drops further: these portraits aren’t painted in oil or delicate watercolor; they are crafted from fabric, quilted together to create stunning works of art!

But Bisa’s work isn’t just awe-inspiring; it has a message and a deeper meaning that can resonate with any one of us. It’s a reminder that what we create, the stories we tell, and the heritage we pass on will live long, long after we are gone!

Image: Bisa Butler Quilt "Sisters, 2020"

Courtesy of Bisa Butler

Stunning, right?

How would you feel if you saw yourself or your favorite hero stitched in such a beautiful light? I know I would stand a little taller, and feel proud to see myself represented in such a stunning way.

For Bisa Butler, representing her own community and culture in a positive light as a Black American is central to why she does her work.

As a fine arts student at Howard University, a historically Black university, she was educated by artists who helped found the powerful AfriCOBRA arts movement. This movement started in Chicago, and its founders set out to create positive and consciousness-raising images that spoke to the needs of Black people, particularly the need for better representation of Black culture and life. 1

Drawing on the deep roots of African American quilting heritage, her first quilted pieces she worked from images of her own family, but as her artistic voice grew, she turned to depression-era images taken by Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and others, and began quilting her portraits in life size. 2

“You have a responsibility to educate your people, you have a responsibility to have your people shown in a positive light.” —Bisa Butler

To hear Bisa speak about her work is beautiful, and is a reminder of why art endures as a medium for documenting our history and facilitating storytelling. In this interview with Sok.Vision, she will have you looking at the art you love, and the stories you leave behind, with new eyes.

Sok.Vision has another great interview with Bisa that you can find on their YouTube channel! Make sure you check out that piece, too!

If you want to see more of Bisa’s work, you must follow her on Instagram or Facebook. Whenever I see an image of hers on my feed, they force me to pause and admire them. Her work is truly a wonder!

“I see how much responsibility you have as an artist. You are the reflection of our times. So whether you’re a writer, a dancer, filmmaker, painter, or sculptor…You are reflecting the times that we live in, and after you’re gone, all that is left is that reflection.” —Bisa Butler

What role do artists play in telling our history?

How would we think about the lives impacted by the depression without Dorothea Lange’s portrait of a mother and her children? Would any of us know about the Trojan War if we didn’t read Homer’s Iliad? Just think about all of the artistic artifacts that fill the world’s museums!

What does your favorite piece of art say about the person who made it? Why does it draw you in? What do you love about it? Do you see yourself in some way in the words of that poem, in the strokes of that painting, the lyrics of that song, or the characters in that play?

Sometimes we forget the powerful role art plays in helping us make sense of the world. It influences us in ways we don’t even realize. That is, until artists like Bisa Butler come along and remind us of what great art and great representation can mean. Art can change our perspective on the world, even if we aren’t an “art” person!

If you want a little proof, here are a few of my favorite artists and their world-expanding work:

15 minutes

What We Learn From Art that Challenges Us

Why should we care about art that makes us think "I don't get it"? Olafur Eliasson is an artist answering that question and is artwork is changing the way we see the world around us!

Read More

13 minutes

Rediscovering Wonder with Janet Echelman

Can we rediscover our sense of wonder and reshape the way we envision our world? After watching this TED Talk by the incredible artist Janet Echelman, the answer is, most certainly, yes!

Read More

20 minutes

Meet the Man Behind Books Young People Actually Want to Read!

Could there really be a simple way to encourage youth to read more? See how the author, Jason Reynolds, is making it happen by telling stories that connect to the experiences of today’s young adults. 

Read More

So, go out, find the art that speaks to you, and if you’re so inclined, make it yourself! We all have a story to tell, and who knows how our own story could lift up another person!

Stay beautiful & keep laughing!

-Liesl

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Notes:

  1. Gean Moreno. “‘AfriCOBRA: Messages to the People.’” ARTnews.Com, ARTnews.com, Mar. 2019, www.artnews.com/art-in-america/aia-reviews/africobra-messages-to-the-people-62630/. Accessed 27 Aug. 2020.
  2. Logan, Liz. “Artist Bisa Butler Stitches Together the African American Experience.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, 24 July 2020, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/bisa-butler-stitches-together-quilts-african-american-experience-180975397/. Accessed 27 Aug. 2020.
  3. Sok.Vision. “Quilting for the Culture, Bisa Butler.” YouTube, 6 June 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_P3_61nh3xo&feature=emb_title. Accessed 27 Aug. 2020.

Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

COO of Ever Widening Circles, Founder of EWCed

Since 2015, Liesl has been a writer, editor, and the COO at Ever Widening Circles. She is a life-long camera-toting traveler, a global story seeker, and an aspiring—but more often floundering—outdoor enthusiast. She can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV