When Meryl Ann Butler studied in the art program at Syracuse University in the 1970s, she was ready to learn a great deal. She was not prepared to be told there was nothing they could teach her.
At 14, Butler had begun working with a mentor, Harold R. Stevenson, who had studied under renowned artist Norman Rockwell. During her time at Glen Cove High School, she studied at the Stevenson Academy of Traditional Painting, in Sea Cliff, until 10 p.m. on Fridays. Each summer, she took every class Stevenson offered.
When Butler graduated from high school in 1971, she headed to Syracuse. When she discovered that she already knew everything that was being taught in her first few classes, she met with the dean to discuss transferring into more advanced courses. She dropped off her portfolio for him to review one weekend, and when she met with him the following Tuesday, he gave her some bittersweet news. “I don’t think we have anything to teach you here that you don’t already know,” he said.
She left the meeting in tears, having no idea what to do next. When she called Stevenson, he suggested that she come back home. They would figure something out.
After the semester ended, Butler returned home and enrolled in Stevenson’s atelier program, an art apprenticeship that he created for her and several other students. At the New Renaissance Atelier, Butler and her colleagues worked with Stevenson 10 hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. The program consisted of classical drawing and painting, three-dimensional painting, life models, anatomy, color theory and more.
Butler stayed in the program for two and a half years. But at age 21 she got married, and moved to Louisiana with her husband, who was in the military. Just four months later, in December 1974, she opened her first school, the Butler Art Studios, in DeRidder, La.
The school attracted military wives who had moved from big cities to be with their husbands, who needed to be close to the Fort Polk military base. “All of a sudden they were stuck in the middle of Louisiana with nothing to do, so they found me,” Butler said. “They just loved taking classes with me.”
She and her husband eventually divorced, but she stayed in Louisiana to run the studio. Over the next 10 years, she met her second husband and gave birth to a daughter.
In 1983, Butler’s second husband, a pilot, died in a plane crash. Around the same time, she began to develop an allergy to oil paint.
Before he died, they had made plans to move to Virginia to be closer to Butler’s elderly parents in New York. “I’m a New Yorker, so I didn’t want to stay in Louisiana on purpose,” she said. “So when he died, I didn’t have a reason to stay.”
About a year before her husband died, Butler had begun quilting to take the place of oil painting. “When I found out I was allergic to oil paint, I still wanted to paint, but had to find something to do it with that I wasn’t allergic to,” she said. Her intention was to cut the fabric to make it look like a painter’s brush strokes.
Not only was working with fabric healing for Butler after her husband’s death, but it opened up a new creative channel called fiber art.
To create her pieces, she cuts out tiny pieces of fabric and lays them on a tacky background. Once the pieces are positioned just right, she irons them down, then stitches on top. “The reason I stitch on top is not to hold the pieces down, necessarily … the reason is, I use different colors of thread,” Butler explained. “With fabric, you can’t mix colors like painting.” She uses thread to blend the fabric like a gradient of paint colors.
Last year, she opened Ocean View Arts in Norfolk, Va., in a second-floor loft overlooking the ocean. She teaches the same methods Stevenson taught her, in addition to fabric art.
One of her art quilts was chosen to be of 120 to tour France for four months in 2018 as part of a Van Gogh exhibition, sponsored by Cherrywood Fabrics, of Baxter, Minn.
The contest’s guidelines included creating a 20-by-20-inch art quilt inspired by Van Gogh using only black and three shades of blue fabric. Butler wanted to do something other than a typical adaptation of the blue-hued “Starry Night.”
“My favorite Van Gogh paintings are his vases of irises, but I’ve always felt uneasy with his self-portraits and the flashes of insanity I saw in his eyes,” she said. “I’ve imagined that he was happier when he painted flowers. So I depicted Vincent’s eye as he viewed the beauty of the irises.” In Butler’s quilt, 13 irises are hidden in the iris of his eye. The piece is titled “Vincent’s Irises: Visions of Beauty.”
Butler doesn’t plan to stop teaching or creating art anytime soon. “I’m opening this art school now, at a time when most of my friends are retiring from jobs they never liked,” she said.
She especially enjoys proving to her students that they are capable of drawing more than stick figures. She guarantees all students a full refund, and virtually every one thinks he or she will be the first to earn it.
“Not a single student thought that by the end of the classes that they deserved a refund,” Butler said. “That’s exciting, because everybody really does have a hidden artist in themselves.”