There’s a mind-blowing new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, Bisa Butler: Portraits. Butler creates enormous, extraordinary portraits of Black Americans, using elaborate quilting techniques to piece together brilliantly colored pieces of fabric. I have admired beautiful quilts for years, but I have never seen anything remotely approaching the artistry and impact of Butler’s work.

Who is Bisa Butler? The story of her career so far provides some valuable guidance in how to succeed at the career you were born for.

Butler learned to sew from her mother and her grandmother and knew early on that she wanted to be an artist. She trained at Howard University as a painter but “did not find her artistic spark,” she told the Chicago Tribune. When she switched to working in fabric, she found her medium. 

Apparently, Butler had a sense early on of the value of her work. Her brother offered to sell one of her quilts for $100 and she refused. She told him she wanted her work to be in museums and galleries and he mocked her. 

But in the past four years, her fame has grown rapidly. Now her name is on a huge banner above the Grand Staircase at the main entrance of the Art Institute. She has made it, big time.

7 career inspiration ideas from Bisa Butler

What can we learn from her story?

1. Don’t be afraid to go after a career that isn’t an obvious road to financial success

Become an artist? Making quilts? Are you kidding? Much better to go into a STEM career. Well, that might be right for some people, but it wasn’t right for Butler.

2. Work hard to learn your craft

Butler learned to sew from her family and went to university to develop her artistic skills. 

3. Change direction when your path doesn’t feel like the right one for you

If painting doesn’t turn you on, try something else.

4. Utilize your heritage

Butler went to a historically Black college. Her work is influenced by African and African American traditions. 

5. Then go on to innovate and speak with your unique voice 

Her work flows out of her heritage and explodes into something entirely new.

6. Do great work 

Butler’s work is unique and extraordinary. It combines fastidious technical expertise with passion and humanity. 

7. Believe in yourself 

Find your greatness and go for it, full on.

When asked how it felt to have her work featured at the Art Institute, Butler told the Tribune, “It went beyond what I dreamed of, which means that I really need to dream bigger.” Wow – I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Learn more about finding your greatness and dreaming bigger in my book, Curating Your Life. And to see some great art, be sure to catch Bisa Butler: Portraits through Sept. 6, 2021, at the Art Institute of Chicago.