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Bisa Butler stitches Black history together one portrait at a time

Bisa Butler weaves Black history into art
Bisa Butler weaves Black history into art 02:46

Newark, New Jersey — Bisa Butler's artwork has a way of stopping people in their tracks. Her life-size portraits look like they're from the strokes of a painter's brush —  but Butler is a quiltmaker, weaving fabrics of all kinds into celebrations of Black life in America. 

"I always want my portraits to be life-sized, to look the person in the eye, and to grab them, like, despite whatever it is you think of me, you're gonna recognize me as a human being," Butler told CBS News. 

Butler said she is often inspired by historical photos, including a 1940 photo of a North Carolina family fleeing the Jim Crow South. In seven months, she transformed their story onto fabric.

This piece by Bisa Butler depicts a North Carolina family fleeing the Jim Crow South CBS News

"This family was so unified in coming so far and that they were seeking better," she said of what spoke to her about the photo. 

Butler learned to sew from her mother and grandmother. Once a school art teacher, her work now graces major magazine covers. Last year, she had her first solo show at the famed Art Institute of Chicago. 

"I feel like our history has often been either concealed, deliberately erased or ignored. And I feel that African American history is American history. We contributed to this country just as much as anybody else," Butler said. 

She perfects her craft at her home in New Jersey. Every stitch and every fabric is carefully selected to bring her work to life. 

It took 11 months to complete her most recent quilt, which was commissioned by the Smithsonian. It depicts the Harlem Hell Fighters, an all-Black segregated infantry that fought in World War I. 

"They hoped that if they fought valiantly in Europe that when they came back to the U.S., they would be treated differently. They were not," Butler said. 

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