David and Emory Butler draw closer in ‘Where Love Lives’

An emotional bedtime conversation between father and son became the basis for the Columbus artist’s heartfelt new children’s book.
"Where Love Lives"
"Where Love Lives"David Butler

When David Butler was 4 years old, his biological father died, leaving the artist with fragmented memories of the short time the two were able to share together. 

“I remember him being happy and joking with us,” Butler said. “And how if he was lying in bed and we snuck into the room to watch TV, he would grab us with his feet and flip us up onto his body and start tickling us. These [memories], they’re like jewels to me.”

Other recollections are more painful, such as the vivid picture Butler has maintained of his mother in the aftermath of his father’s death, when as a child he spotted her sitting on the edge of her bed in a blue dress, her face streaked with tears.

All of these events and more came washing over the artist one evening a year ago as he tucked in his son, Emory, who halted the elder in his tracks with a single question: “What if I lose you forever?”

“My son was 5 at the time – a year older than I was when I lost my dad – and we hadn’t had that conversation about loss,” said Butler, who with wife Erica has two children, aged 6 and 3. “I couldn't lie to him, so I thought about all these things. … It was the height of COVID, and I had a lot of health factors that were keeping us inside. There was a large amount of racial tension in the world. I was dealing with a long [work] commute that could have led to me being harmed. And I was like, what the hell. What can I say to my son in this moment? And all I could think was to give him a resting place for all of the times we had shared together. Because, for me, that’s what has become the asset for survival: flashes of my dad’s smile, the way he laughed.”

The conversation that followed was honest and heartfelt, with the artist feeling his way forward cautiously – “There was some element of ‘Dad’s trying to figure it out,’” Butler said – and employing repetition and physical contact to gently reassure his son in the moment. Several times he told his son that love will always live here (touching Emory’s heart) and here (touching Emory’s head), and that as long as he can hold tight to that understanding, no one can ever really be lost.

“I wanted to give him this notion that even if you don’t feel the presence of that person, the energy you shared, the love you shared, the tenderness you shared, the memories you shared, they all still live inside you, and you can always tap into it,” said Butler, who lovingly captures this father-son conversation in his new children’s book, Where Love Lives, co-written with Emory and set for release on Friday, April 21. “We don’t get into the metaphysical with our kids too much, but we talk about our shared experiences, and we talk about universal love, which is something I wanted him to understand. … And even having the conversation, you could see his body begin to relax.”

Butler adopted a similarly relaxed approach in creating the illustrations for the book, anchoring the collection in soft-lit images that project warmth and tenderness, and which allowed the artist to stray from his comparatively realistic usual style. “As an illustrator, I don’t get much room to play,” said Butler, who embraced imperfection while pulling from influences as far-flung as manga in creating Where Love Lives. “You see character faces go from really realistic to playful, almost elastic. And it’s not this pristine, industry-standard children’s illustration. … But it’s me really caring about the story, and me really caring about this moment I’m trying to portray.”

For Butler, the conversation is indicative of the more open, emotional relationships he and Erica have worked to forge with their kids, which he described as a departure from his own experiences in childhood, where shared moments of tenderness were rare.

“I know that my dad loved me as a kid, but he grew up with a military father who ran the house in a very structured way, and he was never hyper-emotional with me,” Butler said. “My upbringing was different, and we never cried as a family. We always kept stone faces, and I’m not sure that was a good thing for me.”

In an effort to break this cycle, the family has consciously worked to create space at home in which the four are free to emote, a development Butler also described as a necessary safeguard against the hardening world into which his children were born. Emory, for one, was due to arrive the day Donald Trump was elected, though the youngster held out an additional week, engaged in what Butler termed his own “in utero protest.” 

While the book can feel impossibly intimate – a vibe captured by Butler’s drawings, a number of which are rendered in close-up – it also contains echoes that stretch back generations. Indeed, one of the work’s final images, which depicts Butler kissing Emory’s forehead, tears rolling freely from his eyes, serves as recognition of a much larger reconciliation taking place.  

“It’s really not me crying because I’m super struck by this moment with my son,” he said. “It was really because I had this moment that I ached for with my own father, and with the grandfather I never really got to know. … I always wanted that tenderness with the men in my life, but they just didn’t have the capacity for it. And I had to forgive them in that moment, not because they fell short, but only because we have to start understanding that people aren’t going to love us in the way we want all the time. Some people don’t have the language, or the tools. And that’s okay. … And it was kind of me showing Black men my age, like, hey, drop the veil sometimes and let your children see you cry. It’s not only healing for them, it can be healing for you.”

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News