0.75x 1x 1.25x 1.5x 2x 0:0000:59:31 Bisa Butler


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Lisa Woolfork

Lisa Woolfork is an associate professor of English specializing in African American literature and culture. Her teaching and research explore Black women writers, Black identity, trauma theory, and American slavery. She is the founder of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. She is also the host/producer of Stitch Please, a weekly audio podcast that centers on Black women, girls, and femmes in sewing. In the summer of 2017, she actively resisted the white supremacist marches in her community, Charlottesville, Virginia. The city became a symbol of lethal resurging white supremacist violence. She remains active in a variety of university and community initiatives, including the Community Engaged Scholars program. She believes in the power of creative liberation.

Bisa Butler

Bisa Butler is an award winning African American textile artist known for her vibrantly stunning larger than life sized quilted portraits that captivate viewers around the world. Formally trained, Butler graduated Cum Laude from Howard University with a Bachelor’s in Fine Art degree and it was during this time that she began to experiment with fabric as a medium and became interested in collage techniques. She then went on to earn a Master’s in Art from Montclair State University in 2005. While in the process of obtaining her Master’s degree, Butler took a Fiber Arts class where she had an artistic epiphany and she finally realized how to express her art.  “As a child, I was always watching my mother and grandmother sew, and they taught me. After that class, I made a portrait quilt for my grandmother on her deathbed, and I have been making art quilts ever since.”

After working as a high school art teacher for thirteen years, Butler was awarded a Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship in 2002 and exhibited in Switzerland during Art Basel with the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery. Many institutions and museums have acquired Butler’s work including the Art Institute of Chicago for a solo exhibition, The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Insights from this episode:

  • Why it’s important to uplift and encourage each other, starting with the children in our lives
  • How Bisa uses her art to affirm the dignity of historical figures
  • The process of researching historical figures and time periods to accurately portray them through art
  • How different colors play into the meaning expressed in her art
  • How Bisa infuses her quilts with the music she’s listening to as she creates
  • What happens when you stop starting with ‘white’ as a default
  • Insights into the difference between studying art education (teaching people how to make art) vs. learning how to make art yourself

Quotes from the show:

  • “I’m always seeking for truth and to find those essential truth elements about Black people.” – Bisa Butler, Stitch Please, Episode #200
  • “I have had people ask me, people who don’t necessarily look like us so they don’t have a full understanding, ‘I notice that you make all of your subjects look regal. Why, or what’s the process of that?’ I would say I’m just looking at them and this is the way they appear to me. I’m not trying to make them look regal; if anything maybe it’s just that you’re looking at them more carefully. The dignity or that inner regality, I can’t give it to them; they have it already.” – Bisa Butler, Stitch Please, Episode #200
  • “My interest in colorism is why the features look very African American. I don’t want to dilute that in any way. I’m loving our full lips, broad noses, or whatever the case may be.” – Bisa Butler, Stitch Please, Episode #200
  • “I love that word ‘talisman’ because it acknowledges that spiritual resonance and also having a mantra. We’ve always been very spiritual people and we’ve always been people who have to think hopefully and we have to think about the world beyond us or even after us. A lot of times we have to pray for our living relatives who we may not be able to protect in the way that we want to.” – Bisa Butler, Stitch Please, Episode #200
  • “Music is such a strong form of communication; it’s such a strong form of art because you don’t need words, you just need to hear the sound to understand somebody’s emotional output. The composer, musician, they can make you feel sad, they can make you feel happy, they can make your heartbeat go faster, they can make you go to sleep. That’s a control of power that can be passed down through the ages. The music, as long as it’s in a form that you can hear, you can hear how somebody felt hundreds of years before you.” – Bisa Butler, Stitch Please, Episode #200
  • “The music to me is more than an aid; it’s the explanation.” – Bisa Butler, Stitch Please, Episode #200
  • “For Black Women Stitch and the Stitch Please podcast we center Black women, girls, and femmes in sewing to make a deliberate choice to center Blackness. Also one of the things I’m studying a lot in my own work is the question of what happens when you stop starting with white… Stop acting like color is something that is new when white supremacy operates in this country deliberately through our laws and customs.” – Lisa Woolfork, Stitch Please, Episode #200
  • “We are the sum of all the people who came before us.” – Lisa Woolfork, Stitch Please, Episode #200
  • “Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. Treat yourself like you treat other people; it will help you get your stitch together. Enjoy your life. Look at beautiful things. Take classes and learn, and be patient if things don’t look or seem the way you want because we are all growing in this life together and you will get there.” – Bisa Butler, Stitch Please, Episode #200

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Read Full Transcript

Intro 0:06
Black Women Stitch is happy to celebrate the 200th episode of the Stitch Please podcast with AccuQuilt. It's our birthday but thanks to AccuQuilt, we're giving gifts. All September we count it down to 200 episodes. In October, every week we gave away one AccuQuilt Go! Me Fabric Starter Set, and culminated with the grand prize giveaway of the Go! Big Electric Fabric Cutter Starter Set. If you are new to AccuQuilt and are thinking about investing in their system, the Ready. Set. Go! bundle is your best value. Ready Set Go! provides everything you need to get started. An AccuQuilt Go! Cutter, the eight-inch cube with eight essential dyes to create 72 blocks, a dye to easily cut multiple strips, squares, and diamonds. You also get a pattern book, and the best part is, at any time, you can upgrade your G! Cutter to the fantastic Go! Big, which is what I have. Where the AccuQuilt magic can happen at the touch of a button. June Tailor, a well-known name in the notions game is now part of AccuQuilt. Links to AccuQuilt's wonderful products can be found in the show notes.

Lisa Woolfork 1:33
Hello stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax and get ready to get your stitch together. Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. We are celebrating today, our 200th episode. Yes, 200 episodes. Listen, when I started this podcast, I first thought me and my mama was gonna listen. And then my mama told me that she was busy. And she had other commitments, and she couldn't listen every week, you know, she's retired. So she's got a full schedule. And so, I said I listen all the time but my mom would listen sometimes. And now here we are 200 episodes. And I can tell you I had a vision for this episode. And it has come true, because I am speaking with none other than Bisa Butler, who is a creative genius, a former teacher, and she stays schooling us even though she's no longer teaching, she stays schooling us in the beautiful intricacies of Black possibility. And I knew that one day this is gonna work out, I knew this is gonna work out one day, I saw Bisa at the Harlem Needle Arts Zoom back in 2020. And her work was just amazing. And then I listened to Bisa on a Clubhouse room also in 2020. And she helped me to formulate a question that I always ask now. And it is what happens when you stop starting with white. And we'll talk about what that means in both of practical art practice as well as socially, and politically, and culturally. Cause her work reflects that. And y'all, I knew it's gonna happen because our names rhyme. I'm just gonna say that our names rhyme. I'm not gonna say we'd look alike. But I'm saying we favor, can we say we favor?

Bisa Butler 3:40
Yep, yeah, I'd say that.

Lisa Woolfork 3:41
And I think we were born like with three to four years of each other. I just felt like all things being different. We could have been like, you know, grown up together. If I was in New Jersey, are you in South Florida. So I'm just saying, trust me in New Jersey probably was a little bit better for you. Although, I love Florida, as it is when I was a kid. But now. Uh uh, not now. So welcome, Bisa Butler. And thank you so much for being with us today. This is fantastic.

Bisa Butler 4:05
Thank you so much for having me, Lisa. I know we have been talking about this for a while and I'm so happy to finally have the pleasure of sitting down and talking with you.

Lisa Woolfork 4:15
I agree so much. I feel the same. Listen, y'all. If you are not a Patreon supporter, why are you not? You totally should be because there are some gorgeous images that go along with our gorgeous images of our faces. So, of course anyone can listen, it's free to listen. And if you'd like to see this beautiful conversation unfold, join the Black Women Stitch Patreon. I'm going to share the first image is when Bisa Butler added me as a friend on Instagram. As you could say, I think you were talking about the playlist and I was saying how much I appreciated the playlist and we're gonna get to the playlist because I'm so grateful for those. The kind of sonic, the multi-textural experience of your work, I think is absolutely enhanced by the audio. And so I was like yeah, I jam to this music in my studio, and you said, I do the same thing! And then she started following me. And then I was like, now I'm gonna frame this, I will put this image next to my other pictures of my children, et cetera, because I'm really excited about it. And y'all don't get to see it if you're not a Patreon supporter, so I don't know what to tell you. And we also had the opportunity to connect at your show. And this is a photo of us. This is me and my very excited hair. I did not Photoshop my one little hair that was standing straight up at happy attention because--

Bisa Butler 5:27
No, it is important.

Lisa Woolfork 5:29
That's my antenna to the ancestors like hi, thanks, guys. Thank y'all for making this happen. And we also have another photo with Dr. Diana N'Diaye Baird, from the Smithsonian. And she was a guest on the show a couple years ago, talking about her work at the Will to Adorn and I just love that she just happened to be there for her class reunion and heard about the show. And so it was a gorgeous reunion. And I think she was one of the first people to give Faith Ringgold a solo show. That was one of her that she did. I was just like, I know some amazing people. And I'm talking to one right now. Also this, this one I have to share as well. This was from the Renwick show. And this was some friends from Black Women Stitch, and Naomi and Shauna, and we had such a great time.

Bisa Butler 6:14
Yes, that was an amazing day.

Lisa Woolfork 6:17
It was so amazing. I have to confess and tell you that we got there, you know, the pandemic has started to wind down a bit and it's a bit of a challenge to get places. And so as soon as like my first foray out like into the world, and I got to the bottom, I got to the gallery, finally checked in and parked, and somebody said, and I was like, Oh my gosh, I was so excited to see Bisa in real life. And someone said, Oh, she's right upstairs. And I said, she's here. Like, I was like, and no cap, I actually started to cry. I was just like--

Bisa Butler 6:44
Oh no--

Lisa Woolfork 6:45
--I was just so overwhelmed, girl, I was like, finally! Listen, I'm just gonna tell you, you know, I just really admire all that you do. And I'm so grateful for the chance to speak with you. Let's get started talking about your sewing story. When you turn yourself, I know you won an art competition when you were four years old, which is fantastic.

Bisa Butler 7:05
So small, actually they're not small to children. But those acknowledgments mean a lot to little people.

Lisa Woolfork 7:11
Yes, that's why I think they give them certificates. And they put like, my son is 19 years old and still has some certificates on his wall from like, good citizenship.

Bisa Butler 7:20
I love it. That's important.

Lisa Woolfork 7:22
Yeah, it helps to feed them, it helps to encourage them and I guess you don't it reminds me of there's also very easy ways to harm a child, even when you don't mean to, you're not doing it on purpose, but you crush their little dreams. Or you say, you don't put their art on the refrigerator or whatever. And they start to, a little bit of them crumbles inside, I think, you know, and I think it's our job as just human adults to never do that. You know--

Bisa Butler 7:45
I remember walking into the classroom every day and saying to myself, first of all, you know, first thing, do no harm, like, you know, like a doctor, but, and I had teenagers very, very sensitive.

Lisa Woolfork 7:57

Bisa Butler 7:57
You could give them a funny look. And you know, they're just set off. And I'm like, no matter what I do today, I want to teach them this thing. But what I will not do is harm them in some kind of way.

Lisa Woolfork 8:10
Yes, yes. And I think that is the heart of care that I think is important not just for teachers to have, but for all people, but I think teachers are the ones that think about it.

Bisa Butler 8:20

Lisa Woolfork 8:21
You know, we are the ones that hold that, you know, as a priority. But so tell me about young Bisa wanting Barbie clothes, and I think your mom was like Okay, now it's time to learn to sew.

Bisa Butler 8:31
I actually wanted Barbie clothes, but I wanted my mother to sew them because I was super creative. So I had these ideas of certain outfits that I wanted my dolls to wear. This probably was in the late 70s like 78, 79. And who knows what it was, but I wanted my Ken doll as a matter of fact, to have a pair of tweed pants. My mother was like done. She was sewing her clothing, as a lot of women did in the 70s, and a back, like family room, had a big table and her sewing stuff, so but we knew better. Don't touch her table. Don't even sit at the table. But I would sit on the floor. And I think after like the fifth outfit that day she was like, no enough, and she sat me down with a hand, a little needle and thread and showed me how to sew these little tweed pants for Ken. And that was my first outfit.

Lisa Woolfork 9:21
Do you remember why they had to be tweed and why you couldn't even sew it?

Bisa Butler 9:25
I don't know.

Lisa Woolfork 9:26
Your kid couldn't get store-bought clothes from the Lionel Playworld or the Toys R Us.

Bisa Butler 9:31
That was the thing though. My mom wasn't buying. He came with an outfit. She wasn't buying more outfits for him, that was out. And my parents had divorced early on, and my father might have bought the outfits, but my mom, absolutely not. She had all that fabric and I think they were tweed because she had given me some of her remnants and she must have been making something tweed, maybe it was fall. I dunno but my kid was gonna be, he was going to be in line with the fashion of the day.

Lisa Woolfork 10:01
Yes. He's like, listen, he came with clothes. And that's the clothes he will have for all eternity and Bisa was like, unless--

Lisa Woolfork 10:08
you do something about it--

Lisa Woolfork 10:09
Doing something is it ordering me to make him outfits, like doing something?

Bisa Butler 10:14
I remember that because I was definitely interrupting her. My mom was a fashionista, so was my grandmother. My mother was raised in Morocco, because her father was a US Emissary. And as a lot of foreign service workers, they were middle class people suddenly thrust into this world of like intrigue and when they got to Morocco, they still had a Sultan, there was the Sultan of Morocco.

Lisa Woolfork 10:41

Bisa Butler 10:42
Yes. And also the people of Marrakech and our prayers and I have been donating and if you all donate as well, but my mother grew up in Rabat, which is the capital, and they would go to embassy parties, and she needed to, she was a child, let me preface this, my grandmother needed her children and herself to look like they fit in those circles. And these are all diplomats and who knows, whatever. And they would look at the time I think they had Vogue magazine, but they had these magazines like Marie Claire, which was a French magazine, or Paris Match was another French magazine. And as you recall, I'm sure you know, at least so they started the Vogue patterns. I guess they still do.

Lisa Woolfork 11:24
Yes, they do Vogue patterns. They're still always the most expensive ones in the drawer.

Bisa Butler 11:28
Wow. Well, like you know, you'd be looking at your Vogue magazine. And then there'd be ads in there. Would you see this outfit and be like Vogue pattern. So they would sell from patterns? Or they would just rip out the picture, create the pattern themselves?--

Lisa Woolfork 11:43

Bisa Butler 11:44
And they always worked on paper patterns because my mother had nine siblings. So there were 10 In total, the seven of those were girls so my grandmother would need to make multiple outfits, all the children about a year to two apart with these embassy parties, you could have six teenage girls and they might all six have the same pattern. But the pattern comes with different versions.--

Lisa Woolfork 12:09

Bisa Butler 12:09
One has long sleeve one has short sleeves. So that was what my mother grew up in that sense of creating your own high fashion like based off of Christian Dior and stayed with her my mother was a teacher, French teacher, but honey, those outfits--

Lisa Woolfork 12:28
OK, they were given an Embassy Gala.--

Bisa Butler 12:32
Embassy Gala, Christian Dior, Halston, I don't know, like who was big in those days, Yves Saint Laurent like the older french design.

Lisa Woolfork 12:40
Yes, that's right. That's right.

Bisa Butler 12:42
And then here comes a little Bisa, like I wanna make things too and so I would get those remnants. So that would be like designer or designer style fabrics, high-quality fabrics.--

Bisa Butler 12:53

Bisa Butler 12:54
Dress maker fabrics. And it started with my dolls and then progressed to me. As I got older.

Lisa Woolfork 13:01
You speak about family and having this be part of a family legacy. And your first quilt that you made was made for your grandmother Violette?

Bisa Butler 13:09

Lisa Woolfork 13:09
That was like one of the first pieces. And was just the same grandmother who lived in Marrakech?

Bisa Butler 13:14
She lived in Rabat.

Lisa Woolfork 13:15
In Rabat.

Bisa Butler 13:15
Yes, but this grandmother, she, my grandmother, Violet was born and raised in New Orleans and all of my grandmother's side, all the way back, you know, until we could trace back since there were so many free Black people.

Lisa Woolfork 13:31

Bisa Butler 13:31
And there was a very Catholic city. So I was able to see it on Ancestry, a cousin of mine did trace all the way back to a woman who was on a plantation, whose father owned the plantation and she was able to save her money and buy her freedom. And this was like 17--

Lisa Woolfork 13:49

Bisa Butler 13:49
--whatever. So that's a long line of free Black people. And as you know, and as we still are, we're strivers.

Lisa Woolfork 13:55

Bisa Butler 13:56
And that city was very set apart with racial lines and color code lines, hair texture, even like how your dress, you know, are you a servant? Are you somebody's slave? Or are you free? You could tell the difference based on how that person was dressed.--

Lisa Woolfork 14:13

Bisa Butler 14:14
So it was my grandmother Violet, who kind of set off the fashion trend, and then that she was the one who married Francis Herrmann, who went to Morocco, and we were talking off camera before about--

Lisa Woolfork 14:26

Bisa Butler 14:26
W.E.B. Du Bois and my grandfather was a philosopher too.

Lisa Woolfork 14:29
Oh my gosh.--

Bisa Butler 14:31
He was the first dean of philosophy at Seton Hall.

Bisa Butler 14:34
Oh, wonderful.

Bisa Butler 14:36
So you kind of feel that thread in my work, like I'm always seeking for truth and to find those essential truths or elements about Black people, but then also the fashion part.

Lisa Woolfork 14:49
Yes, but make it fashion.

Bisa Butler 14:51
Make your fashion.

Lisa Woolfork 14:53
Like, of all the pictures of W.E.B. Du Bois. I have never seen him look raggedy and nearly one.

Bisa Butler 14:59
Oh never, grooming impeccable. Even when he was losing his hair, he still got those edges done. Suit flawless and fitted.

Lisa Woolfork 15:08
Absolutely. I mean like no pleats, no creases. And also this was a time when photography was rather new and like you didn't get to like, take a picture, look at it and take it again. You took it and you had no idea what you look like, right?

Bisa Butler 15:22
It's true.

Lisa Woolfork 15:24
Like weeks later.

Lisa Woolfork 15:25
It took a while.

Bisa Butler 15:26
They weren't going to CVS, there was no one-hour processing. I didn't even think about that. How long it took them to see that plate.

Lisa Woolfork 15:33
It's so long. And that's why I think what you said, come correct. You had to come when you stepped in.

Bisa Butler 15:39

Lisa Woolfork 15:39
You knew what you had was going to work right. And I think one of the beautiful things about the photos that you work with, they're these historic images of Black life from the early 20th century, just for this one we mentioned earlier. Y'all, this is an image right here from our community where I live in Charlottesville, Virginia there. This is part of the Holzinger collection that was curated by my colleague, John Mason, African American History and photography professor here at UVA. And this image again, y'all, this image is worth the price of the Patreon, I'm just gonna say.

Bisa Butler 16:11
It is. Hello Mr. Bill Hurley.

Lisa Woolfork 16:15
Hello cheekbones. I don't smoke. But you can light my cigarette, sir. Like, listen to the vest. Can we talk about the vest?

Bisa Butler 16:23
Wow, look at all those buttons.

Lisa Woolfork 16:25
Look how the lines are lined up. Do you see that? From the left to right, top to bottom.

Lisa Woolfork 16:30
I'm seeing it. And in the tie itself. Look at the shape of the collar like everything is chosen with care.--

Lisa Woolfork 16:38
Every thing, the eyes, the gaze, just all of it the poise. When you first saw this image, what in your mind, because this is a black and white images and historic image and listen, my old goofy self when I was a girl, I remember vividly believing that my mother lived in an age of black and white. Listen Bisa, I was convinced that--

Bisa Butler 17:02
Hey, their existence.--

Lisa Woolfork 17:04
Yes, was black and white. Because all the TV shows that we watched from the time when she was little, like Leave It to Beaver and all of that stuff. They didn't get color TV until like the late 60s or which was before I was born early 70s. So I thought, well, listen, this is just how I am as a person, I thought I had actually brought color into this woman's life--

Bisa Butler 17:25

Lisa Woolfork 17:25
--that her life looked just like this picture. And then when I came into her life, like this, this was her life before she met me. And this was her life when I was born.

Bisa Butler 17:36
That was when you were born, wow.--

Lisa Woolfork 17:39
I spent a lot of time trying to convince her that this was what I did for her. And you're welcome, ma because you will have been living in a black and white world. Unless I came into it.

Bisa Butler 17:50
I came and blessed you with this color.

Lisa Woolfork 17:54
You're welcome. Boom. Yep, that's me. That's me.

Bisa Butler 17:58
That's me.

Lisa Woolfork 17:59
But how do you make this transition from this historic image? One that I wouldn't even call it static. I would just call it historic. I'd call it beautiful. I was reading in the book, This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley. And she quotes another philosopher who says dignity is not given. It is affirmed. And I hope I'm not botching the quote. But I did write it down. Oh, here it is. You don't give dignity, you affirm it. And that's what I see, absolutely, in looking at this image and looking at the quilt. Can you talk about how you affirm the dignity of these historic figures?

Bisa Butler 18:38
I love that quote, you don't give dignity, you affirm it because I have had people ask me, people who don't necessarily look like us, so they don't have a full understanding, will say, I noticed that you make all of your subjects look regal, and why or what's the process of that? And I was saying to them, No, I'm just looking at them. And this is the way they appear to me. I'm not trying to make them look regal. If anything, maybe it's just that you're looking at them more carefully. So like you said, like the dignity or that inner reality. I can't give it to them. They have it already. In this particular photo. Well, first of all, the pose itself, the cigarette, a lot of things start with me like inquiry. I'm just perusing through photos and on the host, I don't want to mispronounce it. So Holsinger.

Lisa Woolfork 19:31
Yeah, that's right Holsinger.

Bisa Butler 19:32
The Holsinger some of the images, I suppose with your department that you had an assistant or somebody was uploading them.

Lisa Woolfork 19:40

Bisa Butler 19:41
You know, so all of a sudden, I saw this photo and someone else posted it on Instagram or, or maybe it was Pinterest. It came across my screen and then that spurred me to do research. What is the Holsinger collection UBA who was Bill Hurley? How was he sitting so erect? Like, I read that he was a coachman, someone else did the research. I just like peeked in.

Lisa Woolfork 20:33

Bisa Butler 20:06
A coachman. I was curious also about the cigarette because photography in those days, like we talked about yet to come correct. But holding that exposure, it just made me think about how important it was for him to want the cigarette included. How many cigarettes?

Lisa Woolfork 20:23
You know.--

Bisa Butler 20:24
And to have the match.--

Lisa Woolfork 20:25
That's the thing for me is how do you capture fire with such old tech? Flame is not still.

Bisa Butler 20:32
It's a few seconds.

Lisa Woolfork 20:33

Bisa Butler 20:34
So that means that they had to do that again, again, until I mean, that's the skill of the photographer, the patience of the model. Also, his hat was interesting to me. I usually see men with hats with the brim in that era. I'm not so used to seeing like the sort of a cap style. Another thing that I read was that Bill Hurley was, let me see if I get this right, the last man, his boss was a mayor who murdered his wife.--

Lisa Woolfork 21:02
His wife, eh hemm.--

Bisa Butler 21:03
And Bill Hurley was brought to the stands and he was able to be a witness. I don't know if it was a witness to the murder or witness to this man's character. But that man did hang.

Lisa Woolfork 21:14
Eh hmmm.--

Bisa Butler 21:15
The murderer, him. And I thought about what is the nature of a man, a Black man in that era, who can accuse a white man or even be brought in as a witness live to tell and clearly still retain, not only his life, but his dignity and his spirit.

Lisa Woolfork 21:33
That's right.

Bisa Butler 21:33
It began with just him being a good looking man.

Lisa Woolfork 21:36

Bisa Butler 21:37
And then me trying to figure out, when did he live? What was the circumstances? And, thank goodness for the photographers and the archivists who record the people's name and date, because if that stuff is lost to me. A lot of times the only context clues are, if it's a studio portrait, what they're wearing--

Bisa Butler 22:17
Eh hmm

Bisa Butler 21:56
--looking at, when we mentioned the collar, that rounded collar, straight tie, or that it's a double breasted vest, but how it overlaps so high up like, you can find sort of the manufacturer of those clothes, and when that style, to give me an idea of what the world was like during his lifetime. And the color image, it's funny, when you were a little girl, and you imagined the black and white world of the past, I was looking at those same, you know, black and white movies that would come on. But as I was watching them, I would always be wondering what color they were actually wearing.

Lisa Woolfork 22:36
Oh, so you knew they were in color?

Bisa Butler 22:39
I think that I must have asked that question. Because when you said that I never I don't remember asking the question. But I do recall sitting n asking, Well, what color are they really? So I must have said, is it gray? And then maybe somebody told me. No, no, they're in color. So then I would sit in as well. What color was that dress? And what color was this? What color was that? And I will be getting into the story. But at the same time wondering, you know, if Fred Astaire is dancing or--

Lisa Woolfork 23:08
Right, Ginger Rogers, the partner, he had--

Bisa Butler 23:11
Ginger Rogers, okay, but those silk gowns, I'd be wondering what color it was. And I started replacing the colors in my mind early on, I would just get it in my head, you know, that dress is happening. And so every time I would see that film again, I would think of her wearing a hot pink dress. And I think that that sort of flip lasted. That's why I like using black and white photos now, because the black and white photo allows me to imagine what it might be.--

Lisa Woolfork 23:40

Bisa Butler 23:41
You know, just based on the grayscale, what is that those colors might be? And, as we know, colors is a dividing line in this country.--

Lisa Woolfork 23:52

Bisa Butler 23:52
But my original quilts were done as gifts to people in my family who are Black people.--

Lisa Woolfork 23:58

Bisa Butler 23:59
And my take on color, or my philosophy on color really came from my grandmother and her New Orleans background. As you know, the Creoles were a community that wanted to remain independent and free. And sometimes or a lot of times that was their adjacency to whiteness when they were mixed race and to what degree were you mixed race? Hi, Ella. You know, were you just light skin? Were you Redbone like, all of these--

Lisa Woolfork 24:28
--in the vocabularies. Do you remember that you could pick the Mulato, Quadroon, Octoroon?

Bisa Butler 24:34
I forgot about all of that.--

Lisa Woolfork 24:36
All of that, that's what, they gave us these terms like New Orleans, they created those terms as actual racial categories and people could have social status mapped onto that. Or the Octoroon Balls they would have which would be--

Bisa Butler 24:49
--that's a part of my family's history, but my grandmother married more darker skin complected fellow but even her parents anyway, my grandma used to always say, you are a Black girl. And my grandmother wasn't my complexion. My father's from Ghana. So I look like my father. But she would say for herself, we were always Black people she would never say we were Creole Black people. I didn't understand when I was a little girl that she was making a distinction from the way that she self-identified. And when I started doing family research, I saw so many people who, they passed or could've passed, and my grandmother did tell us stories about relatives who passed. And they weren't necessarily angry at their relatives who passed but it was just like a family lore. Oh, you remember Auntie so-and-so she used to have an aunt who they called Mammie round-yonder. And I didn't understand those terms at all. I grew up in New Jersey, I thought that was her name, like first name, Mammy--

Lisa Woolfork 25:57
Meaning, round yonder. Over there, somewhere, over there.

Bisa Butler 26:02
It was something when I grew up that it just meant like that Auntie around the corner. I didn't know that, or around the way. But anyway, my interest in colors is why my other features look very African American. You know, I don't wanna dilute that in any way. I'm loving our full lips.--

Bisa Butler 26:22

Bisa Butler 26:22
Broad noses or whatever the case may be cause some may not have not. We don't all have full lips or full noses. My sister favors my mother who's more light skinned and has straighter hair. And I favor my father. We were, and are only 11 months apart. And we're about the same height, same weight, same friends, very similar features. But one child being dark skinned when light skinned. And we were treated differently when we were little. People would come up to my mother on the street and they would look right at my sister. Her name is Sukie, and they're like, aren't you cute? And they would kind of just glaze their eyes right over me like, like I wasn't there. And as you know, children on the playground, they will get to the heart of it right away. Why do you look different?

Lisa Woolfork 27:10

Bisa Butler 27:11
Why is she so Black? And you're not? And these would be Black kids.--

Lisa Woolfork 27:14
Yes. Oh, yes.--

Bisa Butler 27:15
You know. So if you look at the black and white image of Bill Hurley, you could tell he was a melanated man. But I like to use color more to talk about his inner strength. He to me, he looked powerful. And he looked like a leader, that erect posture, even before I read about him, you could see it. So I use red a lot when I wanna say that I think this person is powerful. You know, this person carries the character traits of Mars, you know, like God of War, passion. And then even I'm not of the Europe of faith. But that idea of Shango. You know,--

Lisa Woolfork 27:56

Bisa Butler 27:56
I see that in the image of Bill Hurley. So I used a lot of red, and I used the blue on the converse side of him because we do have to be both, you know, you can be powerful. But first of all, you could tell he was cool. I don't even need to--

Lisa Woolfork 28:13
It's the cigarette that let you know.

Lisa Woolfork 28:15

Bisa Butler 28:16
And his clothing, I am expressing that I'm of African descent.

Lisa Woolfork 28:22

Bisa Butler 28:22
He's of African descent. I'm referencing my Ghanaian roots by using that Dutch wax, African Print, when I'm using all of the folktales, and the wives tales that go along with those fabrics.--

Lisa Woolfork 28:36

Bisa Butler 28:37
You know, and on his jacket, you see all those Euro symbols?

Lisa Woolfork 28:40
Yes. I was actually wondering about that. Cause I was gonna ask, when you were younger, I read that you would paint guardian angels on your wall or protective figures. And I think that that seems to translate in the way that you deploy fabrics. Because, you know, the fabrics, like you know, I run faster than my enemies, or the fat, you know, these messages, the Euro symbols, that looks like, is it a horse?

Bisa Butler 29:03

Lisa Woolfork 29:04
The jumping horse. So like, can you talk a bit about how you communicate with the fabrics as also a form of language or a form of maybe not maybe talisman or something that kind of communicate something that's in the material itself?

Bisa Butler 29:18
Right. I love that word talisman because it acknowledges like that spiritual resonance, and also having like a mantra, we've always had to be people who think of, well, we've always been very spiritual people. And we've always been people who have to think hopefully, we have to think about the world beyond us, or even after us. And a lot of times we have to pray for our living relatives who, we may not be able to protect them in the way that we want to.

Lisa Woolfork 29:47
That's right.

Bisa Butler 29:48
And so that fabric with the jumping horse is known in West Africa, as Liquidus Cheval in Cote d'Ivoire, and Togo, and the women, the shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, those women have named that fabric. I Run Faster Than My Enemies and the enemies to them might be there other, well, it's hard for me to say, you know, as a Western looking in, are the enemies, their rivals? Or the shopkeepers? Are their rivals other women? I think another interpretation is I run faster than my rival, because it's being translated from African languages and French into English. And all of the words are not exactly transferable.--

Lisa Woolfork 30:32
Right. That's right.

Bisa Butler 30:33
But I love using that fabric. Because I think about how much it symbolizes us as a people and what I would want for this man in his life, whatever I know about him, that he can conquer his enemies and always stay ahead of them. The euros on the jacket I was thinking about, well, first of all, he looks like a million bucks.

Lisa Woolfork 30:54
That's right. That's right.

Bisa Butler 30:55
Was it a million euros?

Lisa Woolfork 30:57
Oh, I love it.

Bisa Butler 30:59
He looks expensive.

Lisa Woolfork 31:01
Mm hmm.

Bisa Butler 31:02
He was a man of means. He wasn't person with a vocation that was sought after.

Lisa Woolfork 31:07

Bisa Butler 31:08
I think he was a coachman. And then also the price that is put on a human being. We, as people, who were sold as--

Lisa Woolfork 31:16

Bisa Butler 31:16
Chattels, or you know, as property, as less than a man. So I like to speak to people at multiple levels. I'm speaking to the African people who know that fabric, I'm speaking to the European or American audiences who don't know that fabric. I'm talking about him as an individual. And then as a people. Yeah.

Lisa Woolfork 31:39
I think that it's so beautiful. Because what it does, it animates, it absolutely animates what is already there. You know, it's kind of like your childhood vision coming to life. Like when you would look at the black and white images, you knew that they were in color. I again, did not think that color entered my mother's life until 1970, which was when she had the great fortune to give birth to me, you are bringing that there. And I think one of the things I appreciate about your work is the multi-sensory nature of it. I had a lot of favorites from the show in Chicago. I went with my sister and y'all listen, when you go to a Bisa Butler show, this is how your phone's gonna look afterward. This is how your phone will look. I think I have some of the, might've taken a screenshot for part of the playlist and in which, I'm telling you, thank God for that playlist because other people were getting on my absolute last nerve. But like, one of the things I wanted to ask about was, when I see this image, and I believe the song, I wanted to talk a little bit about the dress here and the style here. And whas the process similar seeing a group of Black women. What I see this, is Black women at leisure, Black women at repose. What made you look at this and say, I really need to put them into this.

Bisa Butler 33:03
There was so much, like you said, Black women, there at the same time, at leisure, but they're very stylized.

Lisa Woolfork 33:11

Bisa Butler 33:11
Their pose reminded me of my childhood in the 80s. Like, if you look at them, they almost look like the breakdance Freeze Pose.

Lisa Woolfork 33:18

Bisa Butler 33:19

Lisa Woolfork 33:20
Oh, my gosh, I'm just seeing that now. Wow. Yeah.--

Bisa Butler 33:23
But they're very aware of their lines. It's casual. But--

Lisa Woolfork 33:27
But not, but not--

Bisa Butler 33:28
They actually like, decided how they would be sitting. The photographer. Is the name written there?

Lisa Woolfork 33:23
I don't know. Let me just see. I don't think so. Not from this one. I don't have that included.

Bisa Butler 33:40
But the photo was used during W.E.B. Du Bois's Paris Exposition. The World's Fair, there's a Black photographer. Search him by name, I'm sure yourself or your fellow researchers know the name of this photographer.--

Lisa Woolfork 33:56
Or I will find it and put it in the show notes. How about that?

Bisa Butler 33:59
Thank you. And so that the women are posed cause I did see an outtake, somewhere else popped up. And I saw that they were kind of milling on the steps, they were also men on the steps.

Bisa Butler 34:11
Oh, I guess he told them to step out of the way.

Lisa Woolfork 34:14
Like move out of the way. If you're not bringing this you can't come.

Bisa Butler 34:18
You can't come.

Lisa Woolfork 34:19
Step aside.

Bisa Butler 34:20
I love this style, how it resonates. This photo, I was drawn to it because it reminded me of the photos that my grandmother shared with me and her photo albums of relatives from New Orleans. Of the high necks, the long sleeves, the full skirts, their boater hats like, these four young women are each individual and collectively, so gorgeous. One of my friends said my piece looked like, what did she say? The Aunties at the cookout, and they're all talking. They're all judging you. To get ready and call you over and ask how come you're slumping,

Lisa Woolfork 34:59
Especially her right here, she's like, "Look at this. Would you look."

Bisa Butler 35:03
Would you, look at here, look at here, look at here.

Lisa Woolfork 35:05
Look at here, look. Well, well, well, my my my, as I live and breathe. Look.

Bisa Butler 35:12
And it's so beautiful to see that cause they're the Aunties. But then these women are clearly very young.--

Lisa Woolfork 35:17
Yes, yes.

Bisa Butler 35:18
They're on the steps of Atlanta college. It's also enlightening for me to see that, that Auntie attitude was already being expressed when they might've been what, 20?

Lisa Woolfork 35:31
Maybe? Yeah, they do not look like they're, I'd say between 20 and 25. At the outset, I would think.--

Bisa Butler 35:37
That's really what drew me in, their fashion, the attitude, the breakdance pose cause they're giving power and strength. It's like they're like the council of elders who are gonna confer on whatever it is that you're bringing to them. And my color version, I wanted to use color again, to think about... There was a meme that was going on, it was like, which friend are you? You know? Like, are you the fun one? Are you the wild one? Are you the sweet one? Are you the boss? So I was trying to use different colors on each young woman to show what their personality might be, based on what I was looking at in the photo. And then I chose the patterns of their skirts to reinforce that. So one young lady has, looks like a lot of bling like jewelry, and sparkles on her skirt. And another young lady has hearts on her skirt. That particular young woman in the photograph, she did seem to have, a maybe a softer expression on her face.--

Lisa Woolfork 36:34
Right, right.--

Bisa Butler 36:35
And then I'm just using pattern to infuse these women of what I see and also what I wish. So the image of the young woman fans, that fabric in West Africa, the fan represents a prosperity, economic prosperity, the shop owners in, let's say open market, if you have a fan. First of all, you've run electricity all the way into your shop. That means you have more money, you have more clients, people are gonna spend more time in your shop because cooler, that fabric with the fans represents like, I'm a baller, basically.

Lisa Woolfork 37:09

Bisa Butler 37:10
I'm a shot caller.--

Lisa Woolfork 37:11
Exactly, exactly. And speaking of being a baller and a shot caller, I wanted to talk about the Spotify playlist or the playlist for your exhibition. When I was at the, connected with you back in June of this year when you were at Jeffrey Deitch, it was like a party because it was music, it was like, talking. It was amazing. For the Chicago, it was so wonderful, and for the Chicago show, it was like, you could go to the playlist and bring your own headphones with both me and my sister, we were there together. But we each, you know, we happen to just travel with them, you know, cause when you're traveling in your pocket or whatever, this was such a gorgeous enhancement to have a playlist and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the connection between visual and audio, and the multi-sensory experience of your work. Because for me, I just thought it was useful because people were talking right next to me who didn't know what the hell they were talking about.

Bisa Butler 38:05

Lisa Woolfork 38:06
And I wanted to turn around and like, say, can you shut all the hells up? Because you are talking really loud. And you ain't saying nothing. First of all this isn't, listen, I thought that you made this just for me and my sister to go to. So I was resentful when there was, all these other people was there and they were just a jibber jabber jibber jabbering over me having my experience.--

Bisa Butler 38:28

Lisa Woolfork 38:29
Talk about that multi-sensory nature of your work, which I think is absolutely enhanced by the audio, and was the song for this one, was it I owe you Nothing, was that the song?

Bisa Butler 38:38
I Owe You Nothing. Yeah.--

Lisa Woolfork 38:40
I think I rock that--

Bisa Butler 38:41
I love that song.--

Lisa Woolfork 38:41
--song every day, every day for like, six months after I saw this. Listen, I've been proselytizing people. I'm like, listen to this song. It'll help you.

Bisa Butler 38:49
That song is so good. And the artist Dania, I think she never like, really got a lot of following in the US. But anyway, hopefully she will, because I thought that the lyrics suited perfectly. And I wouldn't say it's my husband, who is a lifelong DJ. He's been DJing since he was 12 years old.--

Lisa Woolfork 39:10

Bisa Butler 39:10
I met him at Howard. He was a big DJ on campus. He still DJs as a matter of fact.--

Lisa Woolfork 39:16
Oh, that's awesome. Well, he totally, he killed it at the, back in June. So,--

Bisa Butler 39:20
He did. I mean, it's like, a lot of the DJs. now, they're digital DJs. But he was wax. And lately he's been playing a lot of 45s he collects records, album cover art. So when I met him as an undergrad, I would always be over at his place, and he'd be playing music. So music has always been a part of my life that I've had with him. And now we actually share a studio and I'm on one side, it is a big space, like a loft style space and I'm on one side and he's on the other and his music infuses our entire experience. And music as you know, it's such a strong form of communication. It's such a strong form of art because you don't need words, you just need to hear the sound, understand somebody's emotional output, the composer, musician, they can make you feel sad, they can make you feel happy. They can make your heartbeat go faster, they can make you go to sleep. But that's a form of control and power that can be passed down through the ages and the music, as long as it's in a recorded form that we can hear.--

Lisa Woolfork 39:40

Bisa Butler 40:06
You can hear how somebody felt, you know, hundreds of years before you. And I thought about that. And I was talking to him and I said, I really want my quilts to be able to resonate, like these songs too. So I try to infuse my quilts visually, with that feeling. And then we started talking about, and it was at the Art Institute, I think where it was first as a friend of mine who now works with me and management. She was in programs, Erica Hubbard--

Lisa Woolfork 41:02
Oh wonderful.

Bisa Butler 41:04
--saying we would like you all to do a playlist and I was like, well, that's perfect. Because me and him have been talking about how to wed these two forms. And like you said, understanding my artwork, okay, you understand it. And I understand it because we come from similar backgrounds.--

Lisa Woolfork 41:21

Bisa Butler 41:22
But for people who don't, I don't wanna have to write an entire essay to be at the bottom, these women are at Atlanta College, it's 1919, it's the red summer, you know what I mean? People are being lynched, but they are college students.--

Lisa Woolfork 41:36

Bisa Butler 41:37
They are more than the talented 10th, they're the talented one of the one per cent.--

Lisa Woolfork 41:41
Listen, listen.

Bisa Butler 41:43
Like, but how can I say that all when it's too much. Now you've written a book--

Lisa Woolfork 41:49
And people are standing there for like 45 minutes trying to read.

Bisa Butler 41:53
And you've lost them, you've lost them. Because you need to be able to communicate more efficiently, and you need to communicate on different levels. So music to me is more than an aid. It's like, it's the explanation. You know, I don't have to say that, well, maybe I do. But still, some people still may not understand. I've had people ask me, do you change the colors of the figures because you don't want to people to get hung up on race about Black and white? And I'm like, no, this is really an interior conversation to Black people. Like don't get hung up on light and dark. But black and white is always gonna be a huge issue.--

Lisa Woolfork 42:34

Bisa Butler 42:35
But this is the conversation, I guess in somebody's home, in a Black family home and they're talking to each other.--

Lisa Woolfork 42:43

Bisa Butler 42:44
So you may be lucky enough to be, you know, the fly on the wall and you get to listen in, but they're not necessarily speaking to you.

Lisa Woolfork 42:52
This reminds me of what it means to like, for Black Women Stitch and the Stitch Please podcast, we center Black women, girls, and femmes in sewing. That to make a deliberate choice to center Blackness. Also, at least for me, one of the things that I'm studying a lot in my own work is the question, what happens when you stop starting with white? And what I find remarkable about that comment, which seems like an odd comment, like to say, oh, she made them orange and blue, so that we didn't think they were black. It reminds, me you know how you have some people, well, mostly it's like, actually racist white person who's trying to prove that they're not racist. So they say something like, I don't care if you're purple.

Bisa Butler 43:32

Lisa Woolfork 43:35
And so you make people are purple. And now they're like, Are you sure they're really purple? Or are they black underneath the purple? Like, stop it, stop acting like color is something that is new when white supremacy operates in this country deliberately through our laws and customs. But oh, no, no, it's really just about something color, and you could just brush it away just so easily. Listen, you can lie to yourself. But you can't lie to me.

Bisa Butler 43:59
Exactly. What purpose does this serve? Because I know this is a lie.

Lisa Woolfork 44:04
Let's not. I did wanna ask about your work. I think that you kind of started us into the conversation talking about, like meeting your husband at Howard. But I was also really interested in your work with AfriCOBRA artists at that time. And I wanted to ask just, a little elaboration, for folks who didn't get a chance to go see the show in New York. Womp womp. For you. I'm so sorry to hear it because it was amazing.

Bisa Butler 44:28
It's online now.

Bisa Butler 44:29
It's online.

Bisa Butler 44:31
You can look on my website,

Lisa Woolfork 44:32
It's on her website. So you can go back and listen yourself. I guess if you go ahead, go ahead and do it. Please do it. But a student asked a question. I believe she might have been a student and she asked, would you have been the same artist if you had gone to a PWI, and not Howard University? And I think that Howard University is not just a historic institution for Black folks, because it's an HBCU that is not really in the South. So that's a whole different sensibility. But I think it about all the artists that went through there, Toni Morrison went to Howard, Zora Neale Hurston went to Howard, like all these people who went there, who taught there, you know, like, can you talk a little bit about what the art program was like? Because clearly the vibe was, you know, really complimentary to your overall process. But can you talk about what that meant at that time for you as a developing artist.

Bisa Butler 45:24
When I got to Howard, it was early 90s. And there was a real consciousness that was, I said, the consciousness of Blackness was rising in these young people who were the children of people who were around for the original Black Power movement, 60s and early 70s. It was a revelation to me, because my father grew up in Africa. So he always felt proud to be Black. He didn't have to be taught that Black is beautiful, or Black teachers are beautiful, because everyone around him looked that way and felt that way. And not just because he was surrounded by Black people. But Ghana, my father was in the country when it gained independence in Kwame Nkrumah was installed as the first President. So he was there during those liberation movements. And then he came to the United States, and was viewing the liberation movements from the American lens. And me as a child, you know, growing up in the 80s, we were in that post period where, I don't know, let's say that the narrative on the TV was, everything is fine.--

Lisa Woolfork 46:37

Bisa Butler 46:38
I guess we have arrived, I grew up watching The Cosby Show.

Lisa Woolfork 46:42
Emhmmm. We have Black people in commercials now.

Bisa Butler 46:45
Racism is over. That's always, every five years I guess, that's the narrative that white supremacists want to put out. Let's pretend again, it's over.

Lisa Woolfork 46:55
Emhm. We keep telling you, it's over. And y'all keep bringing it up. And I'm like, well, y'all keep doing racist things.

Bisa Butler 47:00
We've had the power and the money, but it's over. So I arrived to Howard's campus and was suddenly plunged into that world where my professors like Jeff Donaldson to Toby Benjamin, Frank Smith, they were primarily in the art department, members of AfriCOBRA, that African Coalition of Bad and Relevant Artists, when they came to Howard, in the late 60s, they threw out and demanded that the professors who were more establishment, more assimilationists leave and get out. They also demanded a new college president, they wanted Howard to have a Black president, which is, I don't think about Howard having a white school president or, at Howard didn't teach African Studies--

Lisa Woolfork 47:49

Bisa Butler 47:50
--when my professors got there, so we were here benefiting from all of that, but they were determined to school all of us children, cause how would they call it the Mecca? There's kids coming from all over. I had an African father, but an American mother who was raised in Morocco.

Lisa Woolfork 48:07

Bisa Butler 48:08
So their sensibility was different. There's a lot of foreign national students, Nigerians, Haitians, Jamaicans, then you have Black children whose parents come from the South, who've had wealth and money, you know, coming out of Georgia, and North Carolina, they've been free Blacks for a long time. And that's a whole nother philosophy. Then you have Black students who are there on scholarship, financial, who came from the projects, or who came from farms, whose grandparents were and maybe were currently still technically sharecroppers.--

Lisa Woolfork 48:42
That's right.

Bisa Butler 48:43
And that Mecca meant that you have this melting pot of students from the diaspora, but they don't have the same understanding of what is the Black American aesthetic. What is Black American philosophy? Who are we at Howard? What's our purpose? Why are we here? And that student who asked the question at my talk with Jeffrey Deitch, or at the Jeffrey Deitch gallery, the student asked, you know, would I still be the same if I hadn't gone to HBCU? But that Black power need, that strive for Black existence, that thread runs through every single class. My math teacher, my science teacher, my gym teacher, like there are people who look like me. And there are people who are conscious that we're being fed negative programming trough TV.--

Lisa Woolfork 49:35

Bisa Butler 49:36
You know, through movies, through commercials.--

Lisa Woolfork 49:38
Even through the schools that you went to before you got there.

Bisa Butler 49:41
Everything, through schools, through the food, you know, if you talk about like, what foods are more healthy for Black people, you know, we do know our physiologies are not the same. How can you avoid the hypertension and the sugar that you know our grandparents had?--

Lisa Woolfork 49:56

Bisa Butler 49:57
So I don't think that I would've been the same If I want to PWI because they're not zeroed in or focused on, first, let me make sure that this child's self-esteem is intact.--

Lisa Woolfork 50:09

Bisa Butler 50:09
And let this child understand that they're coming from a long legacy of Black people who were fighting for liberation.--

Lisa Woolfork 50:18
That's right.

Bisa Butler 50:18
From mind and body. And it didn't just start with you. It's not just now, it's not just the 90s, it's not just Black Lives Matter. But who was before that? You know, the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude. And who was before that? You know, the Back to Africa movement, who before that? The evolution is like, there are these levels, that you realize that you are just one, and you see yourself as a people, as a nation, and as a continuity towards freedom and enlightenment, let's say. And it helps you understand your place and center you around what is important, as a whole, not just you as an individual.

Lisa Woolfork 50:57

Bisa Butler 50:57
You can make money, you could go work for Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley, you could be rich, you could be a doctor, you could be a surgeon, but like, how can you help because there's so many people who lived and died and struggled and did not have, to put you where you are, do not forget about your grandparents who died because they were bit by a few mosquitoes. And Madison, like, you can't forget that they were buried in unmarked graves. And you're just here like, no, I'm not about race. But are you? Like, be grateful and conscious. I think that that's what Howard put on us.

Lisa Woolfork 51:37
Yes. And I think the idea of the curriculum and the nature of your new professors coming in, because as you said, like the classical art techniques are looking to the Europeans or whatever, as a way to study art, something that they completely tossed out. And so you were able to kind of concentrate on, you know, looking and inhabiting a position that was fully you, and it was constantly supported and sustained. And it wasn't like, no, no study this, do this. It was, you know, what do you want to do? And let's help you to get there. I wanted to switch really quickly to your art study at Montclair, which I believe you said was one of the first times that you turned to Fiber Arts. Why do you think that Fiber Arts were not as represented in your time at Howard as they were at Montclair?

Bisa Butler 52:26
Well, I think that my professors, right, Jeff Donaldson, I think he came out of Pine Bluffs, Arkansas, at that time, the Black Power movement, we were striving for recognition, respectability. And so things that were seen as coming from the plantation, and coming from times where we were enslaved, were looked at as things that we wanna get away from. If I wanna be recognized as fine artists, I'm gonna study in Paris, and then I'm gonna go to Ecole de Beaux-Art of Sorbonne, I'm gonna come back to the United States. And now I'm elevated because I've learned, you know, under the feet of Matisse or Gauguin or whomever, Picasso, but that respectability, you couldn't gain it by saying I was weaving baskets and quilting with my great grandma, or with Mammie round yonder, you know, that wasn't looked at as respectable. So I think at Howard, that was the unfortunate part. It's positive in many ways, but maybe turning away from, or maybe that's also an emotional response to want to turn away from things that remind you of harder times, or maybe remind you of being without. Cause the quilt was something that was, you know, used by poor people, especially the types of quilts that we would be using from leftover worn-out fabrics. At Montclair State, that was my first experience in a primarily white higher education environment--

Lisa Woolfork 53:53

Bisa Butler 53:54
And that, the Fibers department was founded by a bunch of strong white women, feminist professors, who in the 70s, broke down barriers and insisted that the Fiber Arts be a part of the main Fine Art curriculum.--

Lisa Woolfork 54:09

Bisa Butler 54:10
Any student who had an art degree, of any type, even I was art education, even if it was a philosophical degree, you still had to have the courses and that meant that, when I left Howard, I didn't have fibers and I also didn't have metalworking. So that one little Fibers class at Montclair State opened the door for me. I was already gluing on fabric. I was trying to be like, remembered when I was at Howard. And then when I got to Montclair State, my professors were like, oh, we're gonna do felting, weaving. We're doing surface design. So we were doing all these things. And that opened the door that had been closed. I didn't come from a quilting tradition.--

Lisa Woolfork 54:49

Bisa Butler 54:49
My mother and grandmother sew clothing, and being the child descendant of enslaved people. I don't know if I came from the quilting tradition on my mother's side in Louisiana. Probably yes, we know that the Ghanaians, the West African Ghana is strong known for their kente, cloth and fibers. So I know it's coming to me, but I don't have written records.

Lisa Woolfork 54:49
I really appreciate that. And the way that your ancestry is something that is a constant presence, because we are the sum of all the people that came before us, like, that is how we got here. Right? It's because there's people before us, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the difference between studying art education, where you're learning to teach people how to make art, versus learning how to make art yourself as an undergraduate? Was there a big shift for that, for you?

Bisa Butler 55:39
Um, there was a huge shift. Art Education was really how to present a lesson, you know, how to break it down into clear, concise steps, because you could be a master sculptor.

Lisa Woolfork 55:51

Bisa Butler 55:51
But if you're not patient, and you don't know how to break it down to the core steps, then you're not an effective educator. When I would, and as you know, when I would walk into a classroom, would first be, let's agree to respect each other. You know, when you speak, I'll listen. And I made sure my students know that I'm not the holder of all knowledge. I'm not coming in here, like Zeus bestow these little lumps of clay of knowledge, like, you have a lot of things that you could give back to me, like this is a two-way conversation. But let's respect each other. Let's agree to respect boundaries, and space, and time, all of those things. So once you get that, then we can talk about like, we would like to learn and what I would like to teach you. And I have to start at the beginning, when I taught my high school students at American History High School in New York, and at Columbia High School in New Jersey, we had to go through the basics, like this is a needle, let's see the hole at the end, that's the eye. And on a projector, thread the needle, because they do not learn sewing at home. So you got it and then, what do you do with the needle at the end? Do you just drop it on the floor and walk out? Because that was a thing.

Lisa Woolfork 57:05
Oh gosh!

Bisa Butler 57:07
That was a thing that happened. And then like, how do you see them on the floor? Let's, we have to make our own little pin cushions. But you have to start at the beginning. And then build on that so that you have everybody with you.--

Lisa Woolfork 57:20
That's right.

Bisa Butler 57:21
And then you also have to give space for those students who've been sewing since before they were born. And they could show you something.

Lisa Woolfork 57:28
That's right. I think that your overall philosophy shows up so well in your practice, and the way you think about your work. And I am so grateful for you, being on the earth. So thank you for that. Thanks to your parents, and also for talking with me today. I have one last question. The slogan of the Stitch Please podcast is that we will help you get your stitch together.

Bisa Butler 57:50
Oh, I love it.

Lisa Woolfork 57:52
So Bisa Butler, I'm gonna ask you, what would you tell our audience to help us get our stitch together?

Bisa Butler 57:59
Oh, goodness, one thing I would think is be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. Treat yourself like you treat other people. To help you get your stitch together, you know, enjoy your life. Look at beautiful things, take classes and learn, and be patient if things don't look or seem the way you want. Because we are all growing in this life together. And you will get there.

Bisa Butler 58:24
And on that note, we are thankful to Bisa Butler for this beautiful conversation. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. It was wonderful. And that's wonderful, cause you're wonderful. And I'm also kind of wonderful, but it was wonderful!

Bisa Butler 58:37
You are absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much, Lisa. I had so much fun. I enjoyed it.

Lisa Woolfork 58:43
I did too. Thank you. Thank you.

Intro 58:45

Lisa Woolfork 58:49
You've been listening to Stitch Please the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. We appreciate you joining us this week and every week for stories that center Black women, girls, and femmes in sewing. We invite you to join the Black Women Stitch Patreon community with giving levels beginning at $5 a month. Your contributions help us bring the Stitch Please podcast to you every week. Thank you for listening. Thank you for your support, and come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together.

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

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