Beau McCall’s button art approach to Black History Month
Harlem, NY-based, critically-acclaimed, mixed media artist, Beau McCall, a.k.a. “The Button Man,” is one of the featured artists in Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style at The Museum at FIT.
In addition to his installation at The Museum at FIT, Beau McCall returns to the Museum of Arts and Design for the Craft, Front & Center exhibition.
McCall creates wearable and visual art by applying clothing buttons onto mostly upcycled fabrics, materials, and objects.
His artworks, offering commentary on topics such as pop culture and social justice, have been included in exhibitions at The Museum at FIT, Nordstrom, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Houston Museum of African American Culture, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Black Fashion Museum, the Langston Hughes House in partnership with the inaugural Columbia University Wallach Art Gallery Uptown triennial and StoryCorps, and Rush Arts Gallery.
We caught up with McCall to find out more about his approach to art and the meaning behind his favorite medium.
When did you discover buttons and what do you like about them as an artistic medium?
Beau McCall: Like most people, I discovered buttons as a child by seeing them on clothing. Most people’s first introduction to the button is through its role as a fastener. I got attracted to it as a form of art when I was about 19. I discovered a jar of buttons in my mother’s basement where I would often iron. I didn’t immediately gravitate to the jar but after I kept noticing it I decided to experiment with it as an artistic medium.
I find buttons fascinating because there are thousands of them. Each time I pick up a button there is something new to experience. They come in all types of textures, and shapes, and they might have different smells depending on where you find them. Sometimes you’re looking at a button and don’t even know it’s a button. I never get bored with the button and never know what I will find or see. That’s why I’ve stuck with the button all these years.
How might clothing buttons be symbolic or political, rather than decorative or useful?
Beau McCall: Buttons are very symbolic. For example, when you look at buttons on a workplace or military uniform they usually represent a brand or country. So a button can communicate the same things as a flag where you are representing a country or culture.
What is queer about buttons?
Beau McCall: To me, there isn’t anything inherently queer about buttons on their own. As an artist, it’s the narratives I place the button in which add a queer element to the buttons. In the collages for my artists’ book REWIND: Memories on Repeat I used buttons to celebrate the lives of my queer friends who have all passed away. I didn’t look for any rainbow buttons to represent their queerness, which would have been predictable. But the buttons I did use ended up having a queer connotation because of the context they are put in. In that way the buttons are queer, they’re Black, they’re all of these things because they help communicate an emotion and experience tied to those identities.
Is there a racial subtext to buttons? A gender subtext? A class subtext?
Beau McCall: All of those subtexts exist based on how buttons have been used at different points throughout history. Race comes into play because during enslavement buttons were used to identify the enslaved as property. Class is a subtext because during medieval Europe, sumptuary laws restricted the type and quantity of buttons the public could wear and a lot of this was based on class systems. And gender is there because, for a long time, we’ve identified a garment made for a woman vs. one made for a man based on which side the buttons are placed. In my work, I touch on a lot of these subtexts and challenge them. With the button yoke that will be on display at the Museum of Arts and Design in Craft Front & Center: Exploring the Permanent Collection, I tap into that racial subtext by using the buttons to celebrate African culture and its people as inspired by my trip to Johannesburg.
What is the connection between Black queer men and wearable art? Do you see your artistic practice as continuing a tradition or a legacy or history of practice?
Beau McCall: I definitely see my work as part of a tradition and legacy. I’ve come across masks and crowns decorated with buttons from the early 20th century that were used in parts of Africa such as Congo. So the button is part of my ancestral and cultural DNA so to speak. And growing up I remember everyone’s grandmother sewing and they always had a jar or can of buttons in the household. So I am definitely part of that continuum of people who have used the button to create. And I am adding my own distinct perspective and technique to that tradition one button at a time.
What are the artworks Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Harry own?
Beau McCall: The work in the permanent collection of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Residence in Harlem is titled like a rainbow. I was commissioned to create a visual artwork that captured the images and experiences of formerly homeless queer youth who now reside in the residence. Debbie Harry owns a Triple T-shirt celebrating Wu-Tang Clan. She wore it in the New York Times to promote her memoir. And you can see one of my Triple T-shirts on display in this upcoming exhibition at the Museum at FIT.
McCall’s work is held in the permanent collection of public institutions and by private individuals including the Museum of Arts and Design (New York), Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia), Victoria and Albert Museum (London), The Museum at FIT (New York), Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York), Amistad Research Center (New Orleans), The Museum of Modern Art Library (New York), Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art (New York), Stonewall National Museum & Archives (Fort Lauderdale), and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Library (SanFrancisco), Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Residence, and Debbie Harry of Blondie.
In 2021, McCall released his debut artists’ book titled, REWIND: MEMORIES ON REPEAT, which honors the legacy of ten of McCall’s deceased friends through collages composed of archival photos and images from his button artwork. The collages capture the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, from Philadelphia to New York, during the LGBTQ+ rights movement, the height of disco music, and the AIDS crisis. Take a look at the book here.
See Beau McCall’s art at the Museum of Arts and Design here and the Museum at FIT here.