Drawing inspiration from the vast button collection of his mother and family, Beau McCall creates wearable and visual art by applying clothing buttons onto mostly upcycled fabrics, materials, and objects. With deliberate focus the buttons are arranged to stimulate one’s curiosity and imagination, while simultaneously drawing attention to the unique history of buttons. Thereby McCall’s work generates a discussion surrounding many topics such as pop culture and social justice.
As a creative artist, McCall began his professional career in Harlem in the 1980s after arriving from his native, Philadelphia with nothing more than two hundred dollars, a duffel bag and a few buttons in his pocket from home. Circa 1988 he made his critically acclaimed wearable art debut at The Harlem Institute of Fashion (HIF) show for HARLEM WEEK. McCall went on to become an established force within HIF’s Black Fashion Museum collective presenting at their shows consecutively through 1994, as well being featured in their museum exhibitions and prestigious events. During this time, McCall’s visually captivating work was featured in the fashion bible Women’s Wear Daily, on the PBS version of George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum (1991), and in the award-winning film Quartier Mozart (1992), directed by Jean-Pierre Bekolo. The film won prizes at film festivals in Cannes, Locarno, and Montreal and was nominated, in 1993, for a British Film Institute award.
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 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 (San Francisco), Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Residence, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Jeffrey Gibson, and Cristina Grajales. 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 been featured in the NY Times, Associated Press, NPR, L.A. Times, and more. In addition, he has served as a teaching artist at the Newark Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the Harlem Arts Alliance.
McCall has also created a wearable art line called, Triple T-shirts. For these pieces, he upcycles three T-shirts by combining them into one flowing garment that can be worn in six different ways. Each style—from poncho to hoodie to shawl and beyond—brings dynamic versatility to traditional T-shirts. The shirts 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 SHINE Portrait Studio@ Express Newark, Rutgers University-Newark. The book 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.
In 2024, McCall will debut his first-ever retrospective titled, Beau McCall: Buttons On! at Fuller Craft Museum.
Through his work, McCall remains committed to channeling and contributing to the universal cultural legacy one button at a time.
I began working with clothing buttons after discovering the vast button collection of my mother. Through this medium I create wearable and visual artworks using buttons. With deliberate focus the buttons are arranged to stimulate one’s curiosity and imagination, draw attention to the unique history of buttons, and address a vast array of themes including pop culture and social justice.
REWIND: HISTORY ON REPEAT, on view June 2, 2023 through September 8, 2023 at Stonewall National Museum, Archives, & Library.
Artist: Beau McCall