When Jerry Butler was a kid plowing his family’s fields in rural Mississippi, he told his grandma he wanted to be the first black artist in the world.
He didn’t know there were any others.
“That is all I knew, and that is more telling than anything else,” Butler said on a recent morning, walking among 20 of his newest collage portraits. “I didn’t know that Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden and all of those guys were already doing stuff. I had no sense there were already black artists, doing art.
“I think if I had seen some of that stuff then, I could be light years ahead of where I am now.”
At 71, Jerry Butler has entered one of the most prolific seasons of his long artistic career. He makes work in his west side studio for eight hours every day, layering colorful paper and black and white photographs with acrylic paint to create striking collage portraits.
Butler’s current show, “Angels and Demons,” is on view on the third floor of the Central Library through Jan. 23. A second show with 10 more new works opens March 12 in Overture Center’s Gallery I, running through early June.
Since Butler came to Madison in 1970, he has shown work in galleries, in schools and on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. He’s taught art to thousands of kids, from elementary schoolers to graduate students. He’s been an administrator, an illustrator and a muralist, and through it all, he’s kept up his art.
While he prepares for the Overture show, Butler has also been painting illustrations for what could eventually become his fourth book, “Ashley’s Secret,” written with his sister, Mary Kirkendoll.
Butler and Milele Chikasa Anana are working on a new book about Kwanzaa-themed art, featuring 26 different covers Butler has created for UMOJA magazine since the 1990s. Anana hopes to publish it later this year.
On top of this, Butler, a former middle school teacher for 16 years, is teaching again. He leads a Wednesday night arts and crafts club at Lake View Elementary School. This semester he wants to make a mural with his K-2 students. The school is still looking for a location on the north side.
“I feel like if I do enough work and keep improving, the people who are artist connoisseurs will take note of it,” Butler said. “Whatever years I’ve got remaining, I’m going to work. I enjoy work, and I enjoy people, so I’ll keep telling stories and making marks.”
Drawing in the sand
Butler grew up in Magnolia, Mississippi, about 80 miles south of Jackson. The oldest child of nine with four brothers and four sisters, he would plow the family fields with his mule, Ada (a prominent figure in “Self-Portrait with Angels and Demons” in his Central Library show). He dreamt of writing a book or flying one of the military planes that boomed overhead.
Even early on, he had an artistic eye for the things around him.
“I was a camera buff when I was a kid,” he said. “I took photographs of family members all the time, so much so that they started to turn their heads and I got a lot of pictures of the backs of my family members. And then after 20 years, all of them wanted their photographs!”
Family and church encouraged his artistic sensibilities, and soon Butler graduated from drawing the Sunday School lessons in pastels and chalk to creating a mural on a Baptist baptismal font.
In his early teens, Butler worked a paper route and saved a nickel at a time to send away for a $35 artist’s correspondence course. He raced through the assignments in a few weeks, and was surprised when the remote instructor wrote back to tell him to slow down.
Butler knew that work and study would be his way forward, not only raw talent.
“Everybody around me was more talented than I was,” Butler said. “I was not the smartest kid. Girls could outrun me. I played in the band, but I wasn’t the first seat. There were kids who could do amazing things.
“They could hear a Sam Cooke song once and the next day they could sing it, they could play it, could transpose from piano to guitar to harmonica. They could do amazing things.”
For his part, Butler seized opportunities when they came. He graduated in 1965 in a class of 66 people and took a scholarship to Jackson State College (now Jackson State University), a historically black school. Once, during summer school, he was homeless, living out of his car. Yet just like with the correspondence course, he finished college coursework quickly.
An administrative arts job at a school district right out of college got Butler a deferment from the war in Vietnam. The district, Butler said, “wrote to the draft board and said I was vital to their program.”
In his 1998 memoir/art history book, “A Drawing in the Sand: A Story of African-American Art,” Butler recalled the racism he experienced as he went from school to school in Mississippi, helping teachers lead art classes.
“It was then that I really began to learn about racism,” Butler wrote. “If I tried to hand some notes to a secretary, asking her to type them, she wouldn’t touch the paper I had held. If I taught a workshop that included white students, they refused to take directions from me.
“They didn’t believe that a young black man could teach them anything. My talent in art was dismissed by them as an ‘uncanny gift from God’ — an explanation that negated the work, the discipline, and the study I had put into developing my talent.”
Butler moved to Madison in 1970 and started his MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was the first time he’d attended a class with white students.
He also met Freida High W. Tesfagiorgis, who later became a professor of African/ African-American art history and visual culture. Butler and Tesfagiorgis were part of a brief collective of black artists called Common Bond, which produced one show in the 1970s. They also collaborated on later shows, like “The Wisconsin Connection: Black Artists Past and Present” at the Wisconsin Union Galleries in 1987.
“When we started, many of us in my generation were looking for African-American art,” said Tesfagiorgis, who taught at UW-Madison for 41 years. “There weren’t many books published until the ’70s, when people started digging and organizing exhibitions and doing small catalogs. It was all a growing experience.”
When he first came to Madison, Butler wrote that most of the black artists he knew “could only exhibit at black art shows,” except perhaps during Black History Month. His contemporaries were divided about how political they should be, as well as who their art was for.
“I wanted my work to be seen and appreciated by all people, and hostile work seemed to draw negative responses,” Butler wrote in “Drawing in the Sand.” “My natural approach has always been a positive one … I knew the kind of artistic segregation we were experiencing was inexcusable, though.
“I wanted my art to include my experiences. I wanted my art to show Black American life, and I wanted white people to understand that life.”
Butler moved into a career as an educator, teaching at Lincoln Elementary, Sennett Middle School and Lake View Elementary. In 1995, he completed a PhD in curriculum and instruction from UW-Madison and moved into arts administration at Madison Area Technical College (now Madison College), where he worked for 13 years.
He “got canned” from that job, he said, in 2001 — the college alleged that he hired a company owned by a friend, got kickbacks of some $30,000 and used college employees for work on a course he taught at UW-Whitewater.
Butler did not admit wrongdoing when he resigned, but he ended up declaring bankruptcy and going back to school, this time for a degree in landscape architecture. In 2008 he left Madison for six years, teaching at a university in Connecticut and making public art.
When Butler sees the arts education even the youngest students receive now, he marvels at their access and options. He also sees how hard it is for some young black students to “break out of their economic, social mold” and challenges them to think differently, to “re-engineer” their future.
He wants the kids he works with to think less about where they are and more about where they want to be.
“In my time working with kids, I tell them, genius is not defined by age,” Butler said. “You can do great things early on. It is, to some degree, defined by hard work. I never thought about where I was. I always thought about where I wanted to be, where I was going.”
Butler created the work for the Central Library “Angels and Demons” show in less than a year. He’d had a few recent shows, including one at a university in Jackson, Mississippi and another, “Visual Jazz,” at La Follette High School in spring 2018. But again he seized an opportunity, this time to make a series of new work.
The musical theme from “Visual Jazz” carries over in just one image in “Angels and Demons,” a bright chaos of musicians and dancers inspired by Butler’s grandfather’s bar, the Dew Drop Inn. But the overall themes of the show are different.
Butler wanted to show the “angels” who’d supported him — mostly women, like his late sister Ronnie and his Aunt Wilma who died in a car accident when she was in her 20s — and the demons of his darker side, ghouls of self-doubt, fear and procrastination.
The first image in the show, “Boxed with Internal Demons,” was inspired by a photo of his brother. Butler wanted to reflect “the way young black men have been treated, caged.”
“I used various things in the garment to show the multiplicity,” Butler said. “I have some areas of paint, some areas of photograph. I use whatever floats to the front.”
What “floats to the front” might be gilt-accented Japanese paper in a bright pink floral print, used to create the dress on a portrait of an old girlfriend. It might be the quilted patterns that repeat in his own self-portrait and a collage that foregrounds his first wife Jeanette, who died of cancer when she was in her 30s.
“I like to put transparent things on top of transparent things, to create layers as you’re looking through them,” he said. “I like to use prints. I’ll see a texture or something I like, and use that.”
Butler took a painting that his daughter, Vanessa, had made when she was a teenager and later partially destroyed. Butler repurposed pieces of her painting, a portrait of two women in profile, for four new collages. For him, the final works tell a story of intimacy and physical closeness.
The coat Butler wears in his self-portrait was made by his grandmother before he left for college, and he wore it until it fell apart. In the upper right corner of the work, he gives a photographic glimpse of the Mississippi farm. Ole Ada, the mule, tucks her head over Butler’s shoulder, while the demons of procrastination and fear glower in another corner.
“I might start with a figure in space,” he said. “Then I build that space and try to see if I have natural, believable aesthetic elements around it.”
Trent Miller, the curator and artist who runs the library’s Bubbler program, was intrigued by a portrait of Butler’s father when the man was in his 50s.
“There’s something so powerful in the gaze, and the texture in it,” Miller said. “I felt drawn to that piece. It did some different things than the other pieces that were busier … it knocked my socks off.”
Butler’s father was a barber who thought his son was “wasting time being an artist,” Butler said. He thought for a long time before completing that particular portrait.
Butler’s mother shows up in one collage with an ironing board. Tucked toward the end of the board is a plain white mask of the kind people decorate and wear during Mardi Gras.
“The mask is going to be a big part of some future series,” Butler said. “As African-Americans in this environment, you’ve always had to have two realities. You mask things as you go out.”
Tesfagiorgis went to see “Angels and Demons” and spotted figures she knew and patterns she remembered. She noted that Butler’s work is usually narrative as well as figurative.
“There’s always some kind of story going on,” she said. “He has great technical skills, the way he works with line, colors and textures. I like the way he can combine the figure with abstraction.”
Artist Jerry Butler created the work for the Central Library “Angels and Demons” show in less than a year. Butler wanted to show the “angels” …
Artist Jerry Butler's Kwanzaa-themed UMOJA covers are being compiled in a book by Milele Chikasa Anana, set to be published later this year.
At 71, Jerry Butler has entered one of the most prolific seasons of his long artistic career. He makes work in his west side studio for eight …
These days Butler begins planning on the way to the studio, where he often has multiple pieces in progress at once.
“I’ll work on three or four things at the same time,” Butler said. “The piece first and foremost that I want to get done, I’ll work on that until I can’t work on it anymore. At some point I have to stop, because I’ll overwork it.”
His studio, he said, is “a sanctuary for me.” He collects things, like photos of family, magazine cut-outs, prints, notes and textural paper. He’s carried some items with him for years, moving them from studio to studio, waiting for the right time to use this image or that textured paper.
Stylistically, Butler was influenced by Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, among others. Miller was reminded of the portraiture of Alice Neel. Butler acknowledged the influences, but said he doesn’t think of himself in terms of a specific artistic lineage.
“I can’t allow things to limit me when I approach my work,” Butler said. “If there are things that are culturally true, then it comes out in the work. I don’t have to struggle for it or against it. If I can do that, I’m a lot freer.”
When he started making work for UMOJA in the ’90s, Milele Chikasa Anana gave him a few prompts for the Kwanzaa-themed covers. That was a challenge for Butler, and he was glad when she eventually let him do whatever inspired him.
“A lot of his work had details in it that are very intense and relevant,” Anana said. “In a lot of his work, you’ll notice repetitive patterns … the one I remember the most is the checkered floor. He’d have a burst of color, like red, and he did a lot of black and white art.”
“A lot of people don’t pay enough attention to color,” Butler said. “A lot of times I’ll start off with a warm gray, rather than a white — white to me is too cold to paint on. I like to let some of the base color come through.”
Butler prices his work from $6,000 to $12,000. He’d love to have a higher profile, have his work acquired by collectors and shown in museums. But it’s also important to him that the people who see the work respond to it.
“I’d love to have my work in MOMA in New York where it’s the epitome, and people think ‘this guy is great’ and you’ve got collectors buying your stuff,” Butler said. “But I’d rather have someone buy my work because they really like my work and have an interest in what I’m doing, than to buy it as an investment.”
Butler isn’t sure if he’ll ever break into those kinds of big leagues. He does the work because he enjoys it, but he’s also evolved in his ideas, and he’s disciplined about his own learning and growth.
“I’ve come a long way in my understanding of art,” Butler said. “I think I’ve done some stuff that’s really good. I don’t know whether I’ll ever be … if I could sell work for half a million dollars, that to me says not necessarily that it’s good or bad, but I would have made it into the market. It’s either a brilliant idea at the right time or you do something that is worthy. You have to have someone out there that recognizes it, (someone) with resources.”
Butler’s illustrations will have an afterlife in his work for UMOJA, soon to be anthologized, and his three books. In addition to “A Drawing in the Sand,” he illustrated Barbara K. Curry and James Michael Brodie’s “Sweet Words So Brave: The Story of African-American Literature” for Zino Press and “Freedom Train North: Stories of the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin” by Julia Pferdehirt.
“The kids who learned from him will remember him as a great teacher,” Tesfagiorgis said. “He’s such a multifaceted person.
“When you create, you’re creating from your own imagination, from the impulse that’s stimulating you,” she added. “You want the world to see it, people of all ages and genders. Things have definitely changed since we created Common Bond.”
When Butler thinks about his artistic legacy, his work as an educator is wrapped up in it. He loved teaching middle school, just like he enjoys the work now.
“Some teachers cannot continue doing their work, but a lot of my work was done while I was teaching,” Butler said. “One of the things I found that was so extraordinary is to have a body of work you’re creating while you’re teaching your students, and your students seeing that work and talking to them about it.”
Even more exciting, he said, was when he had some pieces on display in what was then the Madison Civic Center, and the students got to see the finished work.
“I took a bus trip with my kids down there,” Butler said, “and when they walked in and saw that work — their voices, the expressions on their faces, oh my goodness! This is incredible.”
Being able to both do the work and pass on his love for art, he said, “has made a very full life.”
“I wasn’t teaching art to produce a whole bunch of artists, I was teaching art to produce successful people,” Butler said.