Bisa Butler: In Her Massive Quilts, Look for the Details

Back in the spring of 2020 – during the height of COVID craziness – a friend told me I must see the show “Bisa Butler: Portraits” at the Katonah Museum of Art, so I went. I was a bit nervous about it, but fidgety and feeling cooped up, I traveled north from Manhattan to Westchester County (NY). That was the start of my infatuation with Bisa Butler’s extraordinary art.

Walking into the exhibition, I was first taken by the size of her work. Bisa’s group portraits are enormous, and – as exhibited and lit by the Katonah Museum team – they were breathtaking. At first glance, they appeared to be paintings or perhaps stained glass, but no, they were all quilts.

The luminous, intense colors and intricate patterns grabbed my attention. I still thought some details had been painted, and leaned in to study one quilt more carefully. A museum guard came over to warn me about getting too close. With awe in her voice, the guard pointed out that each tiny piece was fabric.

Bisa’s choice of subjects, expressions, and messages convey powerful personalities and emotions.

The more I looked, the more I came to appreciate Bisa’s art. Her choice of subjects, expressions, and messages convey powerful personalities and emotions. The fabrics were chosen for symbolic meaning as well as beauty and help to convey the nature of the individual portrayed. Bisa meticulously constructs these fabric mosaics and takes quilting to a level I’d never imagined, much less seen.

At the exhibition, there was a short film about Bisa’s motivations and process. She starts with historical photographs of black Americans (dating as far back as 1870). The individuals’ names were generally not recorded, but Bisa chooses to celebrate them through her art.

Bisa’s subjects’ humanity and dignity shine through. In her words: “These ordinary folk who may have been very poor are some people who should be highly regarded, the love in the care that they have for each other, the way they’re presenting themselves… I see the dignity and the beauty. So, I want other people to see that.”

Fabrics are carefully chosen and include cotton, silk, velvet, chiffon, and wool. Most have extraordinary prints, some bold, some African designs. Many fabrics are from Ghana (her father’s homeland). Bisa lays them out, moves pieces around until she is pleased, then sews them together, finally appliqueing and quilting. Creating a single quilt takes many months, even as long as a year. Bisa has said: “One eye alone can take me two to three hours and can have 20 to 30 micro-cut, tiny pieces of fabric.”

The Katonah exhibition was Bisa’s first solo museum show, and, from there, it moved to the Art Institute of Chicago. She has upcoming shows at the Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville (NY) in winter 2023 and at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Manhattan in spring 2023. I’m looking forward to seeing them and hope they will be well attended. Her work deserves all the exposure and recognition it can get.

Bisa is a New Jersey-born African American artist with Ghanian heritage…

Back home after my visit to the Katonah Museum of Art, I read more about the artist. Bisa is a New Jersey-born African American artist with Ghanian heritage who now lives and works in Brooklyn. I learned she had been a fine art major at Howard University.

During her first pregnancy, Bisa found the smell of paint caused horrendous nausea. But she needed to complete a thesis project, so she turned to fabrics. Since her mother and grandmother had always sewn and quilted, these were skills that had been instilled in her. Thus began her journey into art quilting. She later got a graduate degree in fine arts at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Prior to her current fame, she taught high school art classes.

The years since have brought Bisa’s work significant recognition. Her quilted portrait of Wangari Maathai  – environmental activist, women’s rights activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize  – was on the cover of TIME Magazine in 2020. (see link below).  And the cover of the New York Times Magazine culture issue in 2021 featured her quilted portrait of Ahmir Thompson (best known as Questlove). Articles featuring her work have been in Smithsonian Magazine, on NPR, CNN, in Vogue, Art News and many other publications. Her work is on permanent display at numerous museums around the country and was recently featured at Art Basel 2022.

Last month, on a whim, I went to the Newark Museum. Newark is in New Jersey, a mere ten miles west of my home, but I never knew it had a museum. This, despite my brother and sister-in-law living in Newark for several years. Upon arriving there, a postcard showing a Bisa Butler quilt was on the entrance counter. I made a beeline to her work.

As with all of Bisa’s work, the smallest details have been carefully thought out.

Once there, I found a small portrait of a young girl clutching a bouquet of pink peonies. Her dress matches the flowers and her hair is tied back with a pink ribbon. As with all of Bisa’s work, the smallest details have been carefully thought out. But it is her expression that is most telling. To me, she looks sad, as if she’s about to hand the flowers to a sick friend or relative. To my friend, the girl looked pensive or reverent.

Upstairs, there is a larger Bisa work called The Warmth of Other Sons. It is enormous – nine feet high and twelve feet wide. The artist has said that her portraits are loosely based on historic photographs of black families that migrated from the South to the North looking for economic prosperity. Seven life size people, from a young boy to an old man, look out, surrounded by luggage. I spent a long time admiring the details of the clothing, accessories and, most of all, the faces. As with the portrait of the young girl, the expressions can be interpreted differently by each viewer. To me, their faces speak of wariness, excitement, exhaustion.

Bisa’s work has been described as haunting, joyful, intense, exciting, thought-provoking, unique, astonishing, amazing, vibrant, and complex. It is all of that and more. The beauty of her work and messages of her art will stay with me forever.

© Karen Gershowitz (9/1/22) Special for FF2 Media®


Click HERE for Bisa Butler’s website: See schedule of upcoming exhibitions, order books, prints &/or posters, etc.

Click here to see The Warmth of Other Sons poster referenced above.

Follow this link to Bisa Butler’s Wikipedia page.

Follow this link to learn more about Wangari Maathai  (winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize). Follow this link to see the cover Bisa created for TIME magazine.


Featured Photo of  To God and Truth taken by Karen Gershowitz & used with her permission. All Rights Reserved!

(Crop by Jan Lisa Huttner. Click HERE to see original in situ.)

Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement by Tarana Burke – with cover illustration by Bisa – is available on Bisa’s website.

Karen Gershowitz: Writer/Photographer/Travel Addict

Karen grew up in Manhattan.

During her long career as a marketing researcher, she crisscrossed the globe, conducting thousands of focus groups and interviews. While traveling, she used her interview skills in ordinary conversations to get strangers to open up and connect with her.

Read all about her adventures in Travel Mania.

Tags: African American Quilts, Bisa Butler, Fabric Art, Karen Gershowitz, Quilts, Wangari Maathai

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