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Q&A With Bisa Butler
The artist told Scholastic Art about her process, her materials, and her goals
Scholastic Art: How do you decide who appears in your work? How do you decide which photographs to use as references?
Bisa Butler: I collect thousands of photos. There’s something that draws me into each one. It can be a gaze; it can be an attitude. There’s something that tells me that this is the right photo.
How does Butler work with the value scale?
SA: Tell us about your working process. How do you begin?
BB: After selecting a photograph that I think is interesting, I make a sketch right on top of that photo. Lately I’ve been doing that on my iPad. I’m sketching the lights and the darks in the photo itself. For instance, when you draw, you know that the light hits your nose, your forehead, and sometimes your chin. So those parts of the face are going to be lighter, and everything that goes in, like your eye sockets, will be darker. I start shaping those bits of light on the face, on the body, on the clothing.
How does Butler use color to capture the contours of her subject’s face?
SA: What is the relationship between the black-and-white images you start with and your vibrant quilts?
BB: I always use black-and-white photos to tell me what is light and dark. The value scale goes from the whitest white to the darkest dark and all the variations in between. I don’t want the photo to inform my color choices because my color choices are about the story and the mood and the interior self. I’m learning things about this person by studying their image carefully. How is their head tilted? How do they hold their hands? I’m trying to use all these clues to give me insight.
The artist carefully cuts pieces of fabric.
SA: Then how do you think about color and pattern?
BB: After I’ve finished my sketch, I like to study it and think about the [subject]. What is it that I want to say about them? And that’s how I develop my color scheme. I’m looking at color to communicate a mood. I choose the patterns for two reasons: aesthetics and to tell a specific story. I use African fabrics with patterns that have attached allegories to tell a story.
SA: How do you create the illusion that a portrait is three-dimensional?
BB: We can fool our minds into thinking that something is 3-D. A painter lightens things by adding white and adds black or uses a complementary color to create something that looks darker. I’m doing the same thing, but I’m doing it with fabric. I can’t mix the color, so if I want a lighter shade of blue, I just have to find a lighter shade of blue. I might use fabrics in 10 different shades of blue to get the effect that I want.
Butler’s high-tech sewing machine is big enough to fill an entire room in her studio!
SA: How do you make the quilt?
BB: I start cutting and layering the fabric. The pieces are not put together like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s layer upon layer, like a topographical map. I use little bits of glue and pins to put everything together like a collage. At that point I could stop and say, “This is just a fabric collage,” and go ahead and frame it as it is. But because I’m interested in quilting, I pin them like a sandwich, I put them on my quilting machine, and I sew it all together.
SA: What do you hope viewers will take away from your work?
BB: [My work is] a recording of what life is like for me as a Black woman and the way I see things. So by creating these portraits, I’m giving other people a window into how Black people see themselves. It’s an insider’s view of a community that is not always paid attention, a community that has been mischaracterized deliberately, lied about, or ignored. I hope my legacy will be telling the truth about the Black community.