During her degree in fine art at Howard University in Washington DC, Bisa Butler studied painting but never quite took to it. Her professor encouraged her to draw on the influences around her – the clothes she made for herself out of African fabrics inspired by the sewing talents of her mother and grandmother, and the music and people she was always surrounded by – and to look to the work of Romare Bearden, an artist who combined fabric, newsprint and collage. Taking note, she started gluing fabric onto canvas, but it wasn’t until she took a class on fibre art during her postgraduate studies that it hit her. ‘I realised I could just switch entirely to fabric and put the brushes and paint aside.’
Butler names the quilts of world-renowned artist Faith Ringgold and those made by the women of Gee’s Bend in Alabama as influences, but her work doesn’t bear much similarity to either. Instead, a painterly quality is evident in her handling of colours and light. ‘I developed my own techniques – a sort of hybridisation between painting, in which I start with a sketch and use layers of fabric like a painter would.’
After 13 years as a high school art teacher she has only recently devoted herself full time to her practice. Since then, her subject matter has broadened out from portraying family members to people who she feels an affinity with, as well as becoming bigger in scale and more intricate – with more layers and types of fabric used to create greater depth, texture and shadows.