The SO (Significant Other), who has been camping out at my place in Michigan since the inception of the Great Pandemic, had occasion to make the trek to Chicago for some business so I tagged along to our other campsite aka the Chicago pied-á-terre. On Saturday morning we took a 1.5-mile walk to one of our favorite places, Hoosier Mama Pie Company for a decadent (in my case) and healthy (in his case) breakfast. It was a stupendous day for a walk; here’s a look at Lake Michigan on our way.
In the afternoon we hopped on the El for a trip downtown to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the most incredible exhibit in a long, long time–quilts by Bisa Butler. Quilts, you say? Since when do quilts qualify for a months-long exhibit at one of the top museums of the world? Well, here’s a little history for you and I hope you end up even half as amazed as I was after taking in this mind-boggling work. Below is the Museum’s summary of the artist and her work:
Bisa Butler’s vivid portrait quilts bring to life personal and historical narratives of Black life. She strategically uses textiles–a traditionally marginalized medium–to interrogate the often overlooked histories of her subjects. The sale and subtle detail of her portraits convey the complex individuality of the people represented. Together, Butler’s quilts present an expansive view of history through their engagement with themes such as family, community, migration, the promise of youth, and artistic and intellectual legacies.
Although Butler’s finished works are exclusively fabric, her methods remain interdisciplinary: photographs inform her compositions and figural choices, she layers fabrics as a painter might layer glazes, and she uses thread to draw, adding detail and texture. The artist’s extensive range of influences includes family photo albums, the philosophies of AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), Romare Bearden’s collages, Faith Ringgold’s quilts, and Gordon Parks’s photographs.
Butler made her first portrait quilt, “Francis and Violette (Grandparents)”, while earning a master’s degree in arts education at Montclair State University, New Jersey. Trained as a painted at Howard University, Washington, DC, she shifted to a textile-based practice to add vibrancy and dimension she found lacking in her paintings. Fabrics also offered her a practical way to pursue artmaking during her pregnancy and after her daughter was born, when oil paints and thinners proved too toxic. In turning to textiles, Butler was also connecting with her family history; she had learned to sew at a young age from her mother and grandmother. In revisiting these early lessons and joining them with her formal studies, she found her artistic path and has created a body of work that resonates across media and time.
Below are descriptions and photos of some of the pieces I liked best, although every single one of them was emotionally moving and loaded with insight into Black life experience. She references music in every one, which is noted in the description. These are each separate “galleries” containing the description and the photo. Click on the left-hand image to start the gallery for each one and read the complete text of the description.
If you have the luck to be in Chicago before September 6 2021 do your best to take in this exhibit. You won’t regret it!