Not even the pandemic and the challenges of the last several months could slow the upward trajectory of quilting artist and alumna Mailissa “Bisa” Yamba Butler’s career, which capped a year of accomplishments and recognition with a show at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, where 22 of her quilts are on exhibit until April.
Butler, who graduated with a Master of Arts in Teaching in 2005, called the exhibit a “dream come true” and said the last few months have been “a whirlwind.”
In March, Butler’s portrait of 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai was featured as one of 100 covers produced as part of Time’s 100 Women of the Year. In July, the Toledo Museum of Art announced the purchase of Butler’s portrait of Frederick Douglass, titled The Storm, the Whirlwind, and The Earthquake.
Her first major museum show, Bisa Butler: Portraits, had a delayed opening at the Katonah Museum of Art due to the pandemic but has now traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago where her quilts are on exhibit from November 16, 2020, to April 19, 2021.
Butler’s unique technique involves reappropriating vintage photographs and giving them new life through a unique folkloric medium – quilting. Her portraits include famous people but often feature the unnamed, the forgotten. The man in I Am Not Your Negro is as regal and deeply layered as Frederick Douglass in The Storm, the Whirlwind, and the Earthquake. Her work engages with themes of family, community, migration, history, creativity and promise using a variety of material including velvet, cotton wool, silk and West African kente cloth.
The beloved art educator (she was inducted into the Columbia High School Hall of Fame when she left teaching at her alma mater in Maplewood, New Jersey, to focus full-time on her burgeoning art career) has indeed been “having her moment,” reported Art & Object in April. And that moment looks like it is stretching into a long career of recognition and achievement.
“My exhibit at the Art Institute Of Chicago is a dream come true,” she wrote in a recent email. “I have been a big fan and admirer of Charles White, Margaret Burroughs and Kerry James Marshall for so long, and to be able to exhibit at one of the finest art museums in the world where their work is hanging lets me know that my art ancestors are looking out for me.”
Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann