Last November, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) held its annual MAD Ball gala, giving out awards to several notables. As expected of MAD, the awards weren't a boring statuette but one-of-a-kind sashes made by artist Beau McCall.
The sashes were done in his signature style, using hand-sewn decorative buttons of various materials such as rhinestone, wood, and mother-of-pearl to create wearable visual artworks. Each award sash was customized to reflect the honoree’s affinities and interests.
Based in Harlem, McCall is a critically-acclaimed, mixed media artist and is known as "The Button Man."
According to his website, McCall first drew inspiration from the vast button collection of his mother and family. Today, he creates wearable and visual art by applying clothing buttons onto mostly upcycled fabrics, materials, and objects. McCall’s work sparks discussion surrounding many topics such as pop culture and social justice.
He began his professional career in Harlem in the 1980s after arriving from his native Philadelphia with nothing more than $200, a duffel bag and a few buttons in his pocket from home. By1988 he had made his critically acclaimed wearable art debut at The Harlem Institute of Fashion (HIF). McCall went on to become an established force within HIF’s Black Fashion Museum collective presenting at their shows consecutively through 1994. During this time, his unique work was featured in Women’s Wear Daily, on the PBS version of George C. Wolfe’s acclaimed "The Colored Museum" (1991), and in the award-winning film "Quartier Mozart" (1992), directed by Jean-Pierre Bekolo.
McCall eventually applied his mastery of the button to visual art. Since then, he’s been enthusiastically proclaimed by American Craft magazine as “The Button Man.” His visual and wearable art has 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, the Langston Hughes House in partnership with the inaugural Columbia University Wallach Art Gallery Uptown triennial and StoryCorps, and Rush Arts Gallery.
McCall’s work is held in the permanent collection of public institutions and by private individuals including New York's Museum of Arts and Design, Philadelphia Museum of Art, London's Victoria and Albert Museum, The Museum at FIT in New York, Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Amistad Research Center in 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 (San Francisco), singer Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Residence, and rock star Debbie Harry of Blondie, as well as others.
McCall has also been commissioned by the Museum of Arts and Design, Columbia University, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And his wearable art can be found in gift shops including the Newark Museum of Art.
McCall has also created a wearable art line called, Triple T-shirts for which he upcycles three T-shirts by combining them into one flowing garment that can be worn in six different ways. The styles include a poncho, hoodie, shawl, among other way to wear it. The shirts are more than fashionable, they are curated to form a narrative about various socially-conscious and lighthearted themes.
In 2021, McCall released his debut artists’ book titled, "Rewind: Memories On Repeat," commissioned and published by Shone Portrait Studio at Express Newark, Rutgers University-Newark. The book honors the legacy of 10 of McCall’s deceased friends through collages composed of archival photos and images from his button artwork.
In 2024, McCall will debut his first-ever retrospective titled "Beau McCall: Buttons On!" at Fuller Craft Museum.
McCall has been fascinated by arts and crafts since a child.
"Part of my upbringing was spent in public housing in Philadelphia. It was great because we had summer camp and after-school programs, and that's where I was introduced to crafts such as weaving, macrame, and tie-dye. I experimented with a lot of different materials until I settled on the clothing button as my main medium," McCall told me in an interview.
And he realized he had a real knack for creating.
"I always knew for sure that I was creative and born with this gift. But I didn't know where I fit in. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a fashion designer or do something in visual art. I didn't figure out what to do in the arts until I came to New York in the late 1980s and saw a fashion show produced by the Harlem Institute of Fashion (HIF) for Harlem Week. There were thousands of people on the streets of Harlem to see fashion, and I knew I had to be part of it. Up until that point, I had been creating button wearable art just for myself. But seeing this show made me want to share it with the world," McCall recalls.
Inspired, McCall went to work.
"Over the next six months, I created a new collection of wearable art to apply for the HIF fashion show. I spent practically every day after work just sewing buttons and rarely leaving the house. The hard work paid off. From around 1988 through 1994, I was in virtually all of the HIF fashion shows and exhibitions. I had found my creative home. That was the beginning of my professional career in the arts," he says.
Creating gives McCall an outlet like none other.
"Creating starts with a blank thought, and that turns into a concept. The concept then turns into a process of bringing it to life. I consider all my creations things that I birthed, so to speak. Within those stages of creation, I really enjoy the hands-on sewing process. It is mentally soothing, and it takes a lot of focus and dedication to sit in a space for hours and hours just sewing buttons and listening to music. It’s wild how you can think about something and then turn it into an object or garment or jewelry that lives on even after you’re no longer physically alive," he shares.
Now, McCall is getting prepared for his first-ever retrospective.
"I am looking forward to completing all of my new works for my 2024 retrospective at Fuller Craft Museum, 'Beau McCall: Buttons On!' And I am excited to have my work in the upcoming shows at the Museum of Arts and Design (Craft Front & Center) and to have my Triple T-shirts line make its exhibition debut at The Museum at FIT. I am also pursuing some brand collaborations. Like any other year, I am always looking forward to creating and sharing more of my work with the world," he says.
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