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Keyonna Butler, storyteller, costume designer, ‘Black Hippie Art’ Founder, on fostering BIPOC community

Roberta speaks with Keyonna Butler, a Costume Designer and the Founder of Black Hippie Art, an organization designed to amplify, connect, and create opportunities for BIPOC artists. In this 25 minute conversation, Keyonna talks about the importance of a safe platform for BIPOC artists to connect with one another, and explains her love of costume design, which she considers a form of storytelling.

Keyonna Butler, a black woman with short curly black hair who is wearing a colorful headband, retro flip-up glasses, a gray Harry Potter shirt that says "Have you seen this wizard?", and a pink choker necklace. She is smiling and making a peace sign with two fingers with her right hand. There is some paint on her right forearm. The background is a digitally rendered, pastel colored, tie-dye pattern.
Keyonna Butler, Founder of Black Hippie Art. Photo courtesy Keyonna Butler. Edited for Artblog.

In this 25-minute episode of Artblog Radio, Roberta speaks with Keyonna Butler, Founder of Black Hippie Art (IG: @blackhippieart). Roberta and Keyonna met at a Venture Cafe Virtual First Thursday event at which both Artblog and Black Hippie Art were tabling. In this conversation, Keyonna describes the importance that BIPOC artists have a safe platform– such as Black Hippie Art– to speak openly about the gate-keeping, lack of access, and discrimination they experience within the arts. Keyonna also explains her passion for using the arts to enact change in her community, using Black Hippie Art to amplify and support BIPOC artists, and her experiences as a Costume Designer here in Philadelphia (including a particularly influential job costuming a production of “The Wiz” for Theater In The X).



Roberta Fallon: [00:00:12] Hi, everybody. Welcome to this episode of Artblog Radio! My name is Roberta and I’m speaking with Keyonna Butler today. Hello, Keyonna!

Keyonna Butler: [00:00:23] Hi, how are you doing today?

Roberta Fallon: [00:00:25] I’m well, and you? I hope you’re well, too.

Keyonna Butler: [00:00:28] I’m doing good today. Thank you.

Roberta Fallon: [00:00:30] Great. So I met Keyonna at a Venture Cafe that we both participated in several months ago I think it was? And I was absolutely intrigued by her organization, which is called Black Hippie Art, a digital platform that offers BIPOC artists promotion, on the site and off, and resource tools, such as opportunities for fellowships and links to applications. A really good resource.

And the goal on the website says, It’s to create a safe environment for artists to grow and advance. And I just thought that was a really great package. And then I found out from Keyonna’s own website that she is a Costume Designer.

So, okay. Let’s start out talking about Black Hippie Art, and then let’s get to your costume designing. Cause I’m really interested in both of those things.

Keyonna Butler: [00:01:32] Sure!

Roberta Fallon: [00:01:34] Okay. So talk about the safety issue, because that struck me as really important. It’s always been an issue for black people in this country with the police but right now, do artists, BIPOC artists feel like it’s not real safe for them in the world or on the digital world in particular?

Keyonna Butler: [00:01:56] So when I bring up the safety issue, it’s really like a safe haven for people to talk about some of the issues, as a people of color trying to get into the art field, that they may have.

Just with like, whether they are accepted into these art galleries, or maybe even an issue of like financing their art careers, and how you know, sometimes it is geared to a certain demographic as far as just, not being able to afford the, like the time or the money in order to be a part of some of these art communities and galleries.

And just being able to talk really about their experiences as black artists or artists of color. I’ve talked to different artists who, you know, feel sometimes uncomfortable going to, like, for instance, old city and trying to go to these art galleries to pitch their work because they feel like all of the artists that they have showcased so far has been a certain demographic and only geared to a certain type of people. And they don’t feel comfortable maybe talking to those art gallery owners. But they felt talking so comfortable talking within our own community about how we can get our art out there, how we connect with, you know, the art scene in Philadelphia and beyond, and how we can like come together and promote our work to people who can help us be successful and get to these art galleries.

So when I mentioned safety is mostly safety in as far as feeling comfortable about having like a open, honest conversation about being artists of color or Black artists trying to navigate the art scene in Philadelphia. Or New York, or wherever they may be try and get their artwork in, but mostly Philadelphia.

Roberta Fallon: [00:03:31] Yeah. Oh man, that’s so important for people to feel that they can have a frank and open discussion about things like that. So I, I really understand that and I, I feel more of those conversations need to happen everywhere.

Keyonna Butler: [00:03:47] Yeah, absolutely.

Roberta Fallon: [00:03:48] So let’s talk about your, you call them members. Are they members or what, how do you reach people to become part of Black Hippie Art?

Keyonna Butler: [00:04:00] So when I actually first started Black Hippie Art, it was an art collective. And I did have artists involved with Black Hippie Art. So it was a small group of us, but we were a collective and we were starting off in the process of doing more events and things of that nature. But unfortunately, you know, some people as artists, they have other jobs they have to attend to.

And When I first started, I was about, 25? Maybe even younger. And we were around that age, it’s rare to be like a full-time working artist. So a lot of artists had to fall off due to like time commitments. They were either still in school or either, you know, they had other jobs if they had to kind of support themselves outside of their art.

And so a lot of the artists who were members of the art collective kind of fell off. Black Hippie Art became like a one woman show (Roberta and Keyonna laugh) and I started doing a lot of things on my own. But I am trying to revamp Black Hippie A rt, so that I do have memberships.

So right now I’m working on a way to add and include members and artists to come into Black Hippie Art. So you would pay a fee each month, and then you would get perks on different things. So some of the things that I really want to do with Black Hippie Art is with our members, try to host pop-up shops for them, so he can sell the artwork, try to do showings, and art gallery promotions, and try to help branch them out into working artists.

So that’s kind of where I’m vamping it. So I will have like more inclusion of having members apart of Black Hippie Art. But right now it’s just me controlling everything. So, But hopefully later this year or early next year, I can start involving members.

Roberta Fallon: [00:05:39] So you’re an entrepreneur with a give back, sort of more of a non-profit in the way you think about things? You are giving back, you’re not just going to be charging a membership fee, but you’re going to be giving back. There will be perks, and pop-ups, and you’re creating community.

So talk about that. Do you come from a family that, you know, had entrepreneurs in it or artists in it, or how, where did this spirit come from?

Keyonna Butler: [00:06:10] Well, actually my family is not art driven at all, which is funny.

My dad did when he was a bit younger, he would do a lot of things with coordinating, like give backs, as far as like giving out free lunches to the community. And he was very involved with like throwing different events and stuff with the money that he would get. We would try to like give back to the community with like clothing drives or lunch drives.

But other than that, my, I guess, love for community and the arts came from, I guess just an interest of me being around artists when I was at school. And also when I was in, I actually studied at the Community College of Philadelphia, and we did this trip to South Africa. It was 2014 and we went to Cape Town.

Yeah. We went to Cape Town, South Africa and was there for about two weeks, give or take. And there was a Community Center that we’ve got to visit. And with the Community Center, what they did was when tourists would come and visit Cape Town, and they would come and shop, the little like gifts that they had a lot of the money that they used from the art they sold, gave back to help rebuild some of the neighborhoods in Cape Town.

And that trip, and that community center really inspired me to want to do something of that same, you know, thing back home herein Philadelphia. Being able to use the arts to enact change within our community. And because I already had a love of arts just growing up I knew I always wanted to be in a creative field.

I did thought, well, I can use my gifts and my talents in the arts to be more community driven and try to do more. Cause I always wanted to do more and wanted to give back, and wanted to volunteer, but I just didn’t know how to do it.

So I wanted to combine my love of. You know, being more involved in a community with the arts, which I kind of like naturally gravitated to ever since I was maybe in like elementary school. It was just like a natural thing that I gravitated to. Definitely, cause I was like shy and quiet and I wasn’t really extroverted. I just thought that being a creative person was like, the best of both worlds. And for me to be able to continue to be myself, but also express myself in a way I maybe couldn’t do with like public speaking or any other career choices that involve the being more out there.

Roberta Fallon: [00:08:32] Oh, I love that story. That’s so great. That’s so great. Do you know Betty Leacraft, by any chance? She’s a fabric artist, and I think has some roots in West Philadelphia, but now lives in North Philly. Do you know Betty?

Keyonna Butler: [00:08:48] No, I do not, I’m going to write the name down. (laughs)

Roberta Fallon: [00:08:50] Oh, definitely. You two should know each other because you’ve both been to this community center that you spoke about in Cape Town!

Keyonna Butler: [00:09:00] Oh, Wow!

Roberta Fallon: [00:09:01] Betty was there, I believe in conjunction with a quilt, quilts of the world’s kind of exhibition? In which she had a piece, a quilted piece, that was traveling to Cape Town and she was invited to go. And so she went. And we’ve done a podcast with Betty and I’m friends with Betty, she’s a great person. And apparently according to Morgan, who just sent me this note Betty mentions the same Community Center in Cape town. So

Keyonna Butler: [00:09:33] Wow.

Roberta Fallon: [00:09:33] Small world, right?

Keyonna Butler: [00:09:35] Yes, absolutely.

Roberta Fallon: [00:09:37] (Laughs.) So what was your first experience as an artist then? You were shy, did you turn to theater first? Or drawing, or writing, or music? What was your tool?

Keyonna Butler: [00:09:52] So my first introduction to the arts was actually writing. Creative writing. I used to write short stories a lot. I never showed them to anybody, but I did, um, used to write creative, short stories and just, I was willing into literature. And with me being into literature and like going to the library and things of that nature, it kind of introduced me to theater.

Because I went from reading novels and books to reading like scripts that I would find. And I remember when I was, I believe I was in middle school, or in the ninth grade of high school. I had a professor, and she made us read “A Streetcar Named Desire.” That was like the first play I ever read. And I was like, absolutely like in love with it.

And then, you know, we had to like also do a lot of like Shakespeare stuff, and like we had to read sonnets, and things of that nature. And that really like, you know, started my love for theater and wanting to be involved. And so I actually wanted to be like a writer, create plays and like write plays.

But, somehow I, you know, when watching movies or watching plays, I just gravitated towards the clothing and the wardrobe. And at the time, I didn’t know about like costume design, I always just all about fashion design. So that’s kind of where I like turn from writing to fashion design. I thought, well, I wanted to be a fashion designer, but in reality, as I started to learn more and more about theater and even fashion design, I learned about costume design and like being a costume designer with that, you know, entailed.

And I kind of went from writing to costume design. But. I’ve always been just passionate, I think for like storytelling, because I believe costume design is a form of storytelling as well.

So always thought of myself as like a visual storyteller and a sense of like, I’m still passionate about writing and like creating these stories, but also costume design is something that I’m like really interested in. Definitely. Being able to tell a story of a person due to clothing that they wear. So, that was kind of like my introduction to the arts, was writing, and then it kind of like went into costume design

Roberta Fallon: [00:12:04] That’s fascinating. And I love that you say costume design is like visual storytelling. I really love that. I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re right. You know, the costume is so important to the narrative.

I mean, all you have to do is look at the different ways that Shakespeare has been produced. Costumed in the 1950s, with gangster outfits, costumed in the Elizabethan era, you can costume it any way you want it, and it’s going to change the narrative completely.

Keyonna Butler: [00:12:37] Absolutely.

Roberta Fallon: [00:12:38] So you’ve actually done this. You were the costume designer for “The Wiz,” for Theater In The X.

Keyonna Butler: [00:12:46] Yes.

Roberta Fallon: [00:12:47] And “Minority Land” for Power Street Theater? I grabbed this off your website.

Keyonna Butler: [00:12:51] Yes. (laughs)

Roberta Fallon: [00:12:53] (Laughs.) So these are really exciting things. And which came first, which gig did you get first? And how was it?

Keyonna Butler: [00:13:02] So I’m a very first gig I got was, before I even did that, I was a Stage Management Assistant at Curio Theater Company in West Philadelphia. And I only did it for about two to three shows, but I was able to not only do the Stage Management Assistant work, but they also let me assist the Costume Designers for both shows, which was “The Crimes of the Heart” and “Marie Antoinette.”

And that was in 2017. And I got to kind of like, that was like my first time actually doing costume design work. It was basically just prepping clothes and props and things of that nature, but that was my first time in like a theater environment. And then from there I did, a friend of mine was studying at Temple University and she had to do her thesis, which turned into a web series. And she asked me to do the costume design for the web series that she was doing for her thesis. And so that was like my first actual costume design gig. And then because of the work that I did at Curio Theater, they recommended me for “The Wiz .”

I had already emailed Theater In The X about, you know, assisting in any way. And then I got a really good recommendation from Curio Theater. And that was my, my first show as a Costume Designer was “The Wiz” back in 2018. So that was the very first show I did. And it was like the biggest cast that I did. So it was very overwhelming, but I learned so much about costume design. I learned so much about theater. And just how a costume designer works in a theater atmosphere. So it was really, really fun.

It was stressful at the time, but it was fun. (Roberta and Keyonna laugh.) And I learned a lot, you know, so it was kind of like my training in a sense.

Roberta Fallon: [00:14:45] Do you have documentation of your costumes? Did someone photograph the plays so that you have them? I would love to see the costumes.

Keyonna Butler: [00:14:54] Um, yeah, so I still have like, All of my sketchbooks from like my initial design work. And I also have I believe on the website of, I have all of the photos as well of all of the costumes that I did. Online. And I still had like extras as well.

The only thing I don’t have is like in-studio costume work. Sometimes people take their costumes and they go and do like a professional, you know photography session with all their costumes. And that’s one thing that I haven’t done that I’m hoping to do with future projects, but I do have photographs of the costumes while they’re in play.
So that’s all on my website as well.

Roberta Fallon: [00:15:35] So everybody go to and check out the costumes there. I can’t wait to go. I’ll I’ll go this afternoon.

So talk about costuming, “The Wiz,” just, just briefly. How did you start? Were you influenced by the movie at all? Or did you go your own direction and kind of go elsewhere?

Keyonna Butler: [00:16:01] So with the Wiz, they actually wanted to do, they wanted to do something that was more influenced by the eighties or the nineties.

And so I did rewatch the movie and try to figure out, okay, what was the, each character’s personality? What was like some of the colors that they wore definitely like the scene of like Emerald City. How did that look? What were they wearing? And then from there, I kind of translated that into what they wanted for like the eighties and the nineties.

And so what I did for each character, I looked up Kind of like iconic people within pop culture that matched the essence of each character. So for instance with Dorothy, I try to compare her to RNB singer by the name of Brandy who was like very youthful and playful. And you know, that she was kind of like, you know, That type of character in a nineties when she was younger.

So I tried to match the Dorothy style to what Brandi would wear in the nineties which matched her personality. And I went down each character and was like, okay, this character kind of reminds me of this person from the eighties and nineties. So what did they kind of wear? What was their style? Like? What did they do?

Um, Another character that I compared, I compared to Scarecrow to Steve Urkel from (laughs) “Family Matters.”

Roberta Fallon: [00:17:15] Perfect. (laughs)

Keyonna Butler: [00:17:17] So there’s kind of like the same personality. So I kind of went and did my research of the decade of the nineties first. And then I compared each character from like the personalities of the movie to iconic roles or kind of people in pop culture.

And then that kind of helped me dial in on like what each character should be wearing based on first, the aesthetics of like the nineties, because that was really important to the company that they wanted to stick into that genre or that decade. So sticking to the aesthetics of the nineties, but also sticking to like the personalities of each character and what they represented in the story of “The Wiz.”

So I wanted to mesh that all altogether when I did the costuming for “The Wiz” and make sure that everyone was happy, but it also makes sense as well.

Roberta Fallon: [00:18:07] And did they like it?

Keyonna Butler: [00:18:09] They did. They loved it. Like even when I just showed the sketches, they was like really into it. And I even went as far as, you know, getting someone who specialized and like nineties and vintage retail I contacted them to like pull all the costumes from them and like, make sure like the color palette and the patterns was very nineties aesthetic and just made sure like each thing mattered.

And I always try to coordinate with the company and a director of the show to make sure, like, they were happy with each decision I made before I like, just made it on my own. And we had plenty your meetings and like went over everything, and plenty of fittings, but in the end, like they really enjoyed it. And out of all the shows I do, every time someone comes up to me, they always say “The Wiz,” like that was like the one show. And I got gotten a lot of like the majority of the shows that I did after “The Wiz,” such as “Minority Land,” Theatre in the Exile show “On the Exhale,” like all of those shows was based on what I did with “The Wiz.”

So that basically like started off my career, like a really good way.

Roberta Fallon: [00:19:15] Yes, a springboard! Springboard.

Keyonna Butler: [00:19:17] Absolutely.

Roberta Fallon: [00:19:18] That’s cool. So somewhere along the line, you must have a relationship with a sewing machine, do you?

Keyonna Butler: [00:19:27] Yes, I do. I do. (Roberta and Keyonna laugh.) In a way. I do. Yes.

Roberta Fallon: [00:19:32] So tell me about that. Did your mom sew? Your grandmom, your sister, if you have a sister, anybody, or was it in school you learned?

Keyonna Butler: [00:19:43] Right. So actually a family friend of ours, he’s a fashion designer in Philadelphia, and he taught me a lot about sewing. So It was around 2011, 2012, I believe I was still in high school, and I was about to graduate.

And my aunt already knew that I wanted to get into fashion design. And so my cousin, which was doing modeling at the time with modeling and a lot of the clothes that he would create. And through that connection, they got me to intern with him, for his clothing brand back in 2012.

And I interned for him for like six years. And during that time not only was I doing a lot of assistant work, but he also was like, teaching me how to sew. So he was like, yeah, he was the main person who taught me how to, so his name is Tamon Collins and yeah, he taught me how to sew. He taught me a lot about fabrics and like what fabrics go with, like the type of garment you’re trying to create.

And he taught me a lot about fashion and different designers and stuff. And then another person who taught me how to sew was actually a neighbor of mine. She’s a really good seamstress. And like, so where she makes a lot of her own clothing. So she taught me a lot about how to use a sewing machine and like what not to put it through a sewing machine, (Roberta and Keyonna laugh.) Versus like, you know, well, you can, so things of that nature,

Roberta Fallon: [00:20:58] Important, that’s all very important! (laughs)

Keyonna Butler: [00:21:00] Yes. Cause I used to always bring my machine and I was like, what was going on? And she would tell me, like, you can’t sew that, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. So it was a lot of like people who were close to the family who weren’t necessarily in my family, but there was close to the family, family friends.

And then I did take some classes at Made Institute as well. And I was able to learn how to do some sewing there as well. I’m not, I’m still not the best sew-er even after all of that education, (Robert and Keyonna laugh), but I know, I know that the basics of like, you know how to like sew a button or how to hem different themes and things of that nature.

So I do know how to sew in that regard, and also I’m really good at like re-purposing things. So having to fix the garment or take something and make it into something else. I’m really good at that more than I am creating a garment from scratch, surprisingly. So

Roberta Fallon: [00:21:51] That’s a really good skill to have. That’s very popular nowadays or has been for awhile. That’s cool.

Oh, you’re so full of stories. I love this.

So what haven’t we touched on that you would like to talk about? I know we’ve covered a lot of material here. What’s coming up for Black Hippie Art?

Keyonna Butler: [00:22:12] Well, right now, like I said before, I’m in the stages of revamping it, but I do have, if you go to our website, which is, I want to be posting more grants, more resources, more residency programs, for the month of May and June.

So if you are an artists or creative and you’re looking for opportunities for May, June, or even the summer, I’m going to be doing my research and posting those items on to the website. As well as I’m going to be, trying to plan a lot more virtual events and by partnering with people to do virtual events and like being able to maybe, hopefully if things are better with the pandemic as far as restrictions of like in-person events, hopefully doing that as well.

And just continuously trying to promote artists on the website. You’re doing artists interviews, artist talks through our social media pages, and trying to just keep promoting and marketing, not only Black Hippie Art,, but artists and people who may want to be involved and like help out or get themselves out there to the audience.

Roberta Fallon: [00:23:21] That’s great. And one last thing what’s going on with Keyonna and costume design, anything cooking, anything on the horizon there?

Keyonna Butler: [00:23:31] So right now I don’t have anything planned. I did just do some costume assisting work with Curio Theater for the show that they have up now. And so I think that ends by the end of this month of April. I’m not sure that you’re doing any more shows in May.

It was actually an installation. And it was “The symphony of St. George.” And it told the story of a black composer in France during the time of like Beethoven. So that was really interesting. And so I did some assistant work with costuming with them, but other than that definitely due to the pandemic and COVID, a lot of the custome and design opportunities are kind of restricted right now because theater is restricted right now.

But I’m going to be hopefully doing some like workshops or like independent projects tist summer. So hopefully I have some things going on with me soon, but right now I’m just focusing on Black Hippie Art.

Roberta Fallon: [00:24:24] Cool. Well, this has been a really great conversation. Thank you Keyonna for being with us today. And everybody go to Kianna’s website and go to to see about all those opportunities that are going to be going up there pretty soon. There are lots, you can go back through time, see the opportunities you missed.

Keyonna, congratulations on everything you’re doing. I love your energy. And we’ll talk again some other time soon. I hope.

Keyonna Butler: [00:24:54] Absolutely. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Roberta Fallon: [00:24:57] Pleasure, total pleasure. Thank you. Bye everybody. Thanks for listening to Artblog Radio and come back next time. See you soon.