Art for Peace: An Interview with Artist Mary Button

When I arrived at the chapel in the United Nations Church Center, artist Mary Button was carefully assembling a large-scale fabric piece on the floor of the chapel. Button is no stranger to chapels or to New York City. She grew up in churches as a pastor’s daughter in the South, and when it came time for a college search, she cast her eyes to New York University, graduating in 2005 with her BFA. She is now studying for a master’s degree at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

Button doesn’t flinch when approaching difficult subject matter. From the Jim Crow South to the Rape of Tamar in the Bible, Button’s work presents a complex and fresh artistic vision. Her Hymnbook Project features pages from old hymnbooks with hand-drawn images overlapping on the pages.

Most recently, she has created works based on peace summit she attended in Kenya. The summit was organized by the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with the goal of bringing together close to 200 young people from across East Africa to talk about the post-election violence that broke out after the 2007 Kenyan elections.

Button found inspiration and challenge when she stepped off the plane in Kenya, and she came back to create a series on her experience there.

JS: How did your faith or the faith of other people play a role in this series?

MB: During The Peace Summit, interfaith dialog was a real priority and so the youth participants were not only from a number of different countries—Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kenya—they also came from a wide variety of faith backgrounds.

One of the things that I became very quickly aware of was how unsure and self-conscious I was about talking about my own faith. I was totally blown away by the openness and ease with which so many of these young people talked about what their faith meant to them. Bear in mind, now, that I am a thoroughly churched woman. Daughter of a Lutheran minister. Sunday School teacher. And about to enter my first year of seminary. And suddenly I felt like I had never really considered what my faith meant to me.

The Hymnbook Project focused on cultures with which you are intimately familiar. What challenges did working in Kenya bring?

It was a real challenge. My friend Maria Murewa, who’s an artist from Rwanda, and I volunteered to lead the workshop where we made banners and signs with the youth for the peace march planned for the last day of the summit. We ended up camping out with a revolving group of youth, and we all made really beautiful signs. We cut out doves and painted them really bright colors. We had some neon green cardboard and made signs in the shape of Africa. And we ran through hundreds of pieces of pastel poster board. There was such a feeling of urgency, and it was so tied up in their faith.

Earlier in the summit, the youth drew these really amazing life maps where they drew out these circuitous paths dotted with people and churches and told these amazing stories about how they came to be at the peace summit. And when we sat down to write out messages for our peace march, the messages they wrote overwhelming were about God’s love.

So when I came back to the U.S. and I began to make these paintings, I wanted to be as respectful as possible in communicating their message over again. What I know about Kenya, I know because of my conversations with the young people in these paintings. I certainly didn’t feel as comfortable making this work as when I was working on The Hymnbook Project, precisely because I only spent a very little time in Kenya. In painting these paintings, though, I felt like I was speaking from this very particular place and that by using my photographs of the peace march, and the tree planting, I could make paintings that were personal, but also a document of a very special experience.

What was your overall motivation in this series?

I wanted to convey this overwhelming and emphatic love that I saw while I was at the peace summit. I was challenged to think very seriously about what faith means and working on these paintings was a way for me to continue to think every single day for months about the incredible outpouring of love and faith and urgency that I felt in Nairoibi.

What role does the patterned fabric play in the series? Why did you choose to use it?

I collect textiles and have been using them in work for a while. In the past, I’ve torn upholstery off sofas and wallpaper off walls and incorporated it in my work. What I particularly loved about the khangas—these really bright, beautiful bolts of cloth that women wear as skirts—is that there are these Swahili aphorisms printed along their hems. The saying on “Our Nation Needs Peace” reads Leo Ni Leo: Today is Today. In this sense, then, I felt like the pieces of the material culture of Kenya, represented something beyond the material—the Swahili sayings seemed to speak to another sort of vision of Kenya.

One of the khangas that I bought was one commemorating the election of Barack Obama, a subject of constant conversation while I was in Kenya. I was there in April, only a few months after Obama’s inauguration, and so there was this incredible sense of hope for America, and America’s relationship to Kenya, in the air. By working with these textiles, I wanted to make paintings that spoke to a beautiful, visual material culture full of hope.

Do you think that peace in Kenya is possible? What role does art play in this?

I do think peace is possible in Kenya. I even think it’s possible in the United States. I think art has an incredibly important role to play in the pursuit for peace because it is this amazing way to channel a sense of collective urgency. I was just taken aback by the incredible energy that manifested itself the minute we brought out the paints and markers and poster board. Art gives people a platform to voice and visualize their hope for peace.