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Life and Work with Danielle “Yelli” Butler

Today we’d like to introduce you to Danielle “Yelli” Butler.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Danielle. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
My journey and experiences in education have heavily influenced my art career. I attended a K-12 charter school in Foxborough, Massachusetts that didn’t have the funding to offer me or my peers more than two art electives during the whole eight years that I attended. That is where I learned to use any materials available to make art.

My ambition for achieving good grades began to dwindle around 5th grade. But, no matter what subject, if I was assigned a project with a visual element like a poster board or powerpoint presentation, I was bound to stand out! I would deliver C- content, but the teachers were so impressed with the presentation that I would score a B.

My work and I had a lot of personality! Which I was aware of by my senior year of high school, so I entered college and decided I would major in Communication arts to be a radio DJ. But the cycle of disinterest in the classroom continued and after many missed classes and nearly being expelled for failing grades, I realized I was spending a majority of that time drawing and painting. I was also attending my performance classes, but certainly not pursuing my university’s radio club. So, that day, I decided to change my major to Studio Art.

I was suddenly an A student. Even art history stole my heart and made me into someone who not only studies but attends study groups! I even won 1st place and a cash prize at my university’s juried art exhibition in 2016. I felt like I had finally found my place and my confidence. I was exposed to so many different modes of communication through visual art that I haven’t stopped yet in experimenting and creating.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
My university was a predominantly white institution (PWI) that exposed me to a version of the art world that is entirely white-washed and exclusive. During my schooling, on many occasions, I met Black women who wanted to pursue an art major or minor but couldn’t afford the supplies necessary to take the classes.
Then, in those art classes, a majority of the time I was one of two total Black students in the room. There were certainly no Black professors, and the criteria were entirely void of artists and influencers who weren’t white. I was suffering a lot during undergrad like so many Black women do at PWI’s.

In the art department, my work was often exalted by white professors, but the lack of Black and Brown professors, classmates or audiences who could also engage in my work made the experience feel totally isolating. Consistently in the classroom, I felt paranoid and experienced gaslighting. All of this racism that I was taught to maneuver through and accept as the norm in the art world enrages me still. It chipped away at my confidence and my drive to make work, because what could it all possibly mean to me if Black people weren’t allowed in?

After graduating and leaving campus for good, I returned home to live with my family in Taunton, MA. I found myself again, reflected in local support systems of Black women artists in Boston, and even Baltimore, MD, who put my work in their shows. So, my advice specifically to young women artists of color is to never give up on finding the right for an audience for your work. But generally, my advice to women artists is to work and learn at your own pace. Don’t feel rushed by the standards of everyone else, but instead have confidence in your way.

What else should we know about your work?
My work is known for engaging with social and political commentary, racism, gender, and sexuality, through collage and mixed media. My work is very personal to me, but once I share it, I think audiences engage with that vulnerability. I think my work has a power of making itself feel personal to the audience as well.

I’m known most widely for my videos and paper collages where I like to commonly use saturated colors, distortion, and images from past generations to play on nostalgia. Honestly, being a multimedia artist is the most fun! If I feel I’m not expressing an idea or emotion clearly enough, I have the flexibility to abandon that painting or collage for the moment and reimagine my message through film or sculpture. I’m proud that I’m expressing myself and that I get to share my joy, humor, burdens, anger, and interpretations of the world with so many people.

As for what sets me apart from others, my undergraduate experience taught me that exceptionalism is not a good thing. I think there is more power in admitting that myself and so many other artists create in the same vein and that is powerful. We share a similar vision for the future and that’s what makes my art interesting is those shared ideas of Black and Queer liberation. I have learned so much from a community of artists online and offline that have taught me to continue having these conversations in as many mediums as possible. I’ve found power in a community of artists who push each other to keep expressing themselves through their words, clothes, songs, videos, collages, paintings and in any way they can.

Do you think there are structural or other barriers impeding the emergence of more female leaders?
I’ll answer this with a quote I read from The Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist group from the 1970s:

“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

I haven’t been able to forget it!

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Image Credit:
Danielle “Yelli” Butler

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