Transforming buttons and friendships into art is a unique specialty. Both are important attachments that artist Beau McCall, popularly known as “the Button Man,” aims to prevent from being taken for granted. The Harlem-based mixed media and contemporary artist is presenting a solo exhibition, “Rewind: History on Repeat,” which opened on June 2 for Pride Month at the Stonewall National Museum, Archives, & Library in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Running through September 8, it’s a celebration and honoring of Black LGBTQ+ history from the 1970s.
The Stonewall National Museum serves as an appropriate location—it’s one of the largest gay archives and libraries in the USA. McCall’s exhibit showcases old, fond memories turned into button-based art inspired by 10 of his closest friendships. His exhibition features the Black LGBTQ+ experience in America and includes personal collages captured in the 1970s through the mid-1990s, from Philadelphia to New York, amid the LGBTQ+ rights movement, the peak of disco music, and the AIDS epidemic.
Despite some tragic endings, McCall assures the fun, creative energy of his friends lives on through collages and buttons. Buttons are very common and known globally, yet most might see their artistic potential beyond clothing. McCall enhances buttons beyond their everyday uses by strategically incorporating them into his compositions. “The button is very powerful, and I like to say (that) I like to connect to the world one button at a time,” he said.
McCall estimates there are millions of buttons on the planet and is excited about finding new styles in different places, including thrift shops. They can be made of wood, metal, shell, etc. The rarer they are, the more he looks forward to creating an art piece with them. “By the time I get to get my hands on the button, it’s the final destination because it takes on the form of art,” said McCall. His works assemble buttons into unforgettable designs of manifestation.
This sentiment of friendship is the leading force behind “Rewind: History on Repeat.” McCall and his close pals aspired to enjoy life and create spaces for expression. Many of McCall’s friends died from AIDS and other health problems years before. He describes the works about them as living art. “They would be overjoyed because they all were talented in their own ways, from dancers to musicians to singers,” said McCall. He trusts that his companions would be delighted with his efforts at reflecting and bringing their pasts to life. His intention is to show this “crop of young folks” life as a young, Black person in the 1980s and 1990s.
McCall’s favorite piece is called “Strange Beauties VIII: Tracy Monroe, Beau McCall, and Antoine aka DeeDee Somemore.”
As young gay Black men in the 1970s, McCall and his friends had limited role models to identify with. “We had nobody to really pattern ourselves and structure our character on how we wanted to present ourselves,” he said. Entertainers are viewed as role models to many, but very few were young Black and gay during that era.
“When you’re trying to find yourself as a young gay person, it could be really difficult,” McCall said. “The power of bonding—that’s one of the most precious things that you can have in life is to bond with another human being.”
While getting ready for his show, McCall emphasized the rarity of maintaining lifelong friendships. He highlighted the importance of keeping the memories of his friends alive through his art. He hopes the current generation values the importance of strong friendships; he believes it will help them on their journeys.
McCall understands the convenience of social media, but prefers socializing in person. “When you meet people face to face, you can use your five senses in the relationship to make it stronger and it makes the relationship more powerful,” he said. His goal is to preserve forgotten buttons and cherish them like close friendships to keep from losing connections.For more information, visit https://stonewall-museum.org/exhibitions/.