Art appreciation

Bisa Butler: The Shared Gifts of Influence

Resilience and perseverance, these are the traits that Bisa Butler emphasizes when she contemplates the artists who have inspired her the most: artists like Loïs Mailou Jones and Alma Thomas, as well as Amy Sherald.


Resilience and perseverance are also characteristics that Butler herself has demonstrated and repeatedly examines in her work.

Butler cultivated her appreciation for the accomplishments of artists who came before her while studying at Howard University, a preeminent historically black university (and alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris). Lois Mailou Jones, who taught Howard from 1930 to 1977, visited the school in the 1990s when Butler was an undergraduate painting student. Butler recalls acknowledging the elder artist’s accomplishments—her cosmopolitan successes and her embrace of African, French, and Haitian aesthetics—as paving the way for future generations.

A contemporary of Mailou Jones and alumnus of Howard University, Alma Thomas was the first student to graduate from the school’s new fine arts program. Although Thomas graduated in 1924, her artistic career did not blossom until the 1960s, after she retired from a 38-year career as a public school teacher and shifted her style from the realism to abstraction. She has developed a signature approach, creating fields of color that look like mosaics. Thomas’ painting Starry night and the astronauts illustrates his rhythmic application of color and conveys his understanding of light and movement.

Alma Thomas

Like Thomas and Mailou Jones, Butler was an art teacher before he could focus exclusively on his artistic practice. She pays homage to Thomas with the fabric she chose for the background of her portrait The value of a man. The motif that grounds the subject, the debonair figure of Bill Hurley, features a field of irregular aquamarine dots on white that echoes the mosaic-like canvases of Thomas.

Butler also noted the great admiration she has for artist Faith Ringgold, whose multimedia practice spans seven decades. Today, at the age of 90, Ringgold continues to work and receive accolades for his achievements.

Faith Ringgold

Her quilts, such as American Collection #5: Bessie’s Blues, encouraged Butler to consider his own success as an artist with a textile-based practice. Additionally, Ringgold’s persistence in pursuing and developing her artistic career while working as a public school teacher instilled in Butler the confidence that she too could work towards a successful independent practice.

I know why the caged bird sings, 2019

Bisa Butler. Minneapolis Institute of Art, pledged gift of long-term loan from a private collection. © Bisa Butler

The portrait of the butler I know why the caged bird sings can be read as a tribute to his predecessors, such as Mailou Jones, Thomas and Ringgold. The artwork is based on a photograph of four women sitting on the steps of a building at Atlanta University, a historically black university founded in 1865, where generations of mostly black students earned bachelor’s degrees and became teachers and librarians throughout the South. The quilt thus captures several layers of persistence: the persistence of women in photography, who earned college degrees in the Jim Crow era; the persistence of artists like Mailou Jones, Thomas and Ringgold, who became teachers and simultaneously pursued their artistic careers; and the perseverance of Butler herself, who taught for 13 years as she established herself in the art world.

But it’s not just his predecessors that Butler credits for bolstering his dedication and perseverance. The accomplishments of her peers, like Amy Sherald, also support her. Noticing Sherald’s portrait of First Lady Michelle obama, Butler notes that both women inspire him: Sherald as the first black artist to paint a seated first lady and Obama as the first black first lady.

Michelle La Vaughn Robinson Obama, 2018

Amy Sherald. Oil on linen. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to the following major donors for their support of Obama portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian

As Sherald works with paint and Butler with fabric, there are several points of connection between their practices. Both artists eschew natural skin tones in their work, reference black-and-white photography, and use fashion to convey messages about the characters of their subjects. In Sherald’s elegant and majestic portrait of Obama, the first lady’s dress hints at an important artistic precedent for the artist. As Sherald observed and painted the geometric patterns on Obama’s skirt, especially the triangular pinwheels and striped bars, it reminded him of quilts, like this one Pinwheel Quilt by Allie Pettway made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Sherald’s recognition and depiction of these geometric elements mirrors Butler’s nod to Thomas in The value of a man. Additionally, Butler has also spoken of the impact Gee’s Bend quilters have had on her practice, describing herself as a “Gee’s Bend girl”.

Bisa Butler. Courtesy of the Love, Luck & Faith Foundation. Photo by Margaret Fox. © Bisa Butler

With the exhibits Bisa Butler: Portraits and Obama’s portraits, hosted by the Art Institute this summer, Butler and Sherald have received well-deserved recognition for their accomplishments, true triumphs of vision and perseverance. Considering their work alongside that of their forerunners and contemporaries – both in Butler’s exhibition and throughout the museum – also illustrates that artistic vision often develops within a community of artists who respect each other and are inspired wholeheartedly. Together, these works illustrate and celebrate an expansive and urgent collective vision.

—Erica Warren, Associate Curator, Textiles

The exhibition is co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Katonah Museum of Art.


corporate sponsor

Significant funding for Bisa Butler: Portraits is contributed by the Cavigga Family Trust.

Additional support is provided by the Joyce Foundation and Darrel and Nickol Hackett.


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