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Bisa Butler's Quilts Feature Designs So Realistic That They're Compared To Paintings

NOEL KING, HOST:

Bisa Butler is an artist who makes quilts that are so finely detailed they look like paintings. Some art watchers say her Technicolor portraits of Black people are transforming the entire medium of quilt-making. Her first solo museum exhibit is on display now in Chicago, and NPR's Cheryl Corley got a look.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEUM AMBIENCE)

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Climbing up a grand staircase at the Art Institute of Chicago, it's clear there's something decidedly different going on. Two massive, colorful banners frame a window at the front of a gallery that's usually the home of European paintings and sculptures of earlier centuries. Now it's home to the quilted portraits of contemporary American artist Bisa Butler.

BISA BUTLER: I describe my artwork as a quilted photo album of a Black family. But it's the Black diaspora family.

CORLEY: It's a celebration of some family members well-known in their time, others just ordinary folk often overlooked, all portrayed in a kaleidoscope of colors, many of the works based on archival photos from the 1930s and '40s, like Butler's "Safety Patrol." The exhibit's opening quilt is her version of the 1947 photo of seven school children taken by preeminent African American photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris.

B BUTLER: Somehow I feel like they're calling out to me.

CORLEY: She worked on the quilt during her last year of teaching art to high schoolers. The life-sized figures pulsate with their own individual vibrant hues. The young boy in charge, holding a schoolmate's back from crossing the street, wears a Nigerian batik print shirt.

B BUTLER: He's looking down his eyes at us. He even has on a little cap, like he's an officer. But he is; he's a safety patrol officer. So this was the quilt that I made in a way to reinforce to myself that the kids will be fine.

CORLEY: Like a painter, Butler selects her palette, a palette that consists of fabrics, many from Ghana, her father's homeland, or other African countries. Her mother, from New Orleans, was raised in Morocco. The Art Institute's associate curator of textiles, Erica Warren, says the museum has been collecting quilts since the early 20th century and has a collection of about 230 of them. Warren says Butler's quilts resonate across the disciplines of painting, photography and textiles.

ERICA WARREN: It's not like any other quilt I've ever seen, and it's not like any other portrait I've ever seen. And that, really, there's an opportunity there to kind of look at the work from so many different points of view.

CORLEY: The intricacy of the quilts - the billowy dresses for four little girls, the layered fabrics that make up a background - astonish many of the gallery visitors who pull out their cameras for pictures. Kamau Grantham (ph) toured the exhibit with his 9- and 12-year-old sons.

KAMAU GRANTHAM: It's amazing - you know, the breadth of the work, the detail, the colors.

CORLEY: Sixteen-year-old Nia Garrett (ph), a high school senior, was taken with a quilt of a 7-year-old girl and her hair tied in pigtails.

NIA GARRETT: I like how it portrays Black people. And she usually, like, uses flowers or, like, a shiny fabric for the hair and stuff like that to portray Black women's curly hair.

CORLEY: Melody Mead (ph) and Terry Rally (ph) were transfixed by the eyes of a woman who looks directly at viewers in Butler's quilt "Survivor."

MELODY MEAD: Just like pierce you. They're just like - that...

TERRY RALLY: That "Survivor" over there is just...

MEAD: That's the one reason that "Survivor"...

RALLY: ...Breaks your heart. You can feel it. You can feel that storytelling, you know, in a quilt and in fabric.

CORLEY: Butler writes narratives about her artwork on social media. She says she wants people to understand what she's trying to say about her work and about Black people.

B BUTLER: These ordinary folk who may have been very poor are some people who should be highly regarded. The love and the care that they have for each other, the way they're presenting themselves - I see the dignity and the beauty, and so I want other people to see that.

CORLEY: And also to listen. With each quilt, there's music, a song of their own. For "The Safety Patrol," for example, it's "Wake Up Everybody," the hit by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAKE UP EVERYBODY")

HAROLD MELVIN AND THE BLUE NOTES: (Singing) Wake up all the teachers, time to teach a new way. Maybe then...

CORLEY: It's a musical and artistic collaboration, the playlist created by Bisa Butler and her husband John, a professional DJ whose studio is underneath hers in the basement of their home.

B BUTLER: So his music is always a part of my work.

JOHN BUTLER: We met 30 years ago at Howard University as a DJ, and she was at one of my parties. It was very interesting because all throughout our relationship it's been music and art, and they are one in the same. They're cut from the same cloth. They're from the same thread.

CORLEY: Which made it easy, they both say, for them to come up with songs from singers and songwriters like Tupac Shakur, Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Jill Scott and others to meet the artistry of the Bisa Butler quilts.

B BUTLER: This piece I call "Southside Sunday Morning."

CORLEY: The iconic photo by Russell Lee is called "Negro Boys On Easter Morning." The boys, dressed in their Sunday best - suits and ties and hats - sit on a car on the south side of Chicago. There's no car in the Butler version.

B BUTLER: One boy, in the original his foot is resting on a license plate. But I love to show that he's so clean that even the soles of his shoes are clean. And this piece, it talks to me about - this is how our community loves our children.

CORLEY: Butler trained as a painter at Howard University before getting her graduate degree at Montclair State University in New Jersey. One of the galleries includes the work of artists who influenced her - Romare Bearden, photographer Gordon Parks, Barbara Jones-Hogu and other members of the AfriCOBRA collective which formed in Chicago in the 1960s to affirm a Black aesthetic in visual arts. Butler's artistry, though, is part of a family tradition, a knowledge of textiles and clothing passed down from her mother and grandmother, both accomplished seamstresses. Typically considered a craft, Butler agrees the art world is beginning to give quilting its due, a different standing.

B BUTLER: Very different now (laughter).

CORLEY: Fine art.

B BUTLER: Fine art, exactly.

CORLEY: And the fine art of Bisa Butler's portraits will be on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until September 6.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF NERIJA'S "VALLEYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.