If something comes to life because of you,
Then you have made an approach to immortality.
By Maryanne Saxon
Family histories provide rich material for many artists. But Bisa Butler’s past truly is woven into her work.
This painter-turned-fiber artist makes magnificent quilts using fabric from family and friends, handed down over generations.
“The more worn the fabric, to me, the more spirit and soul that’s in it,” Butler said Friday at a packed reception for the 23rd annual Art in the Atrium exhibition in Morristown.
Works by 35 top African American artists are on display through March 15, 2015. But Butler is the star, filling the entire fifth floor of the Morris County Administration and Records Building with her colorful, intricate tapestries.
These creations underscore the show’s theme, Ancient Rhythms Remixed, nodding to the past while sharing hopes and dreams for the future.
Butler has fabric from her grandmother’s aprons, and denim worn by the hard-working men in her family. The first quilt she ever made was for her dying grandmother. Later pieces reflect the work ethic embodied by her father, an immigrant from an African village who put his children through college.
Video: Bisa Butler on the Soul of her Fabric
“You maybe weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but you have worked hard and have accomplished a lot of things in life, and you have things to be proud of,” Butler said.
As she sews these fabrics into her art, the essence of her loved ones’ past experience achieves a certain immortality. Their DNA, she said, is embedded in her quilts.
“That is my hope — that our people are remembered, and that I myself, am remembered,” said Butler.
Her personal wish seems almost a certainty. There is, of course, the legacy of her artwork, which has been shown all over the country and beyond. A highlight came when she was chosen to exhibit at the Emperor’s Palace, in Johannesburg, South Africa, at an international Quilt Expo.
Butler’s impact also is likely to be felt for generations to come via the students she has inspired as an art teacher in Newark’s public schools.
And then, there is Art in the Atrium Inc. Butler serves as curator of the nonprofit, volunteer organization. Founded in 1992 by Charles and Victoria Craig, the enterprise is expanding to include programs in Essex County and Philadelphia.
“Six years ago, I was an Art in the Atrium stalker,” Butler said.
Photos by Kevin Coughlin, Maryanne Saxon & Leslie Raff. Please click icon below for captions.
Now, she helps showcase other promising African American artists, such as painter-turned-fashion designer Anthony E. Boone and Lavett Ballard, another visionary who carves stunning results from her family tree.
Or rather, from her leaky family attic. Ballard has turned her father’s warped record collection into fun and flirty portraits.
For a piece entitled Soul Music, she manipulated broken bits of vinyl, CDs and cassette tapes — and even incorporated QR codes.
Scan the codes with your smartphone, and they transport you to online videos of deceased pop legends. The interactive piece holds appeal for art lovers and music aficionados.
See for yourself:
Ancient Rhythms Remixed, which is made possible in part by Morris Arts, can be seen during business hours at the administration building on Court Street. The exhibition spans four floors. Admission is free.
— Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report.