Inspiration: Bisa Butler Project

This blog is part one of a six-part blog series. Upcoming blogs will be about exploring batiks, collage, sewing, kente cloth, and a reflection on the entire project. This blog is about the inspiration for the Bisa Butler project. 

Art educator holds up two pictures. One picture shows a photograph of two people. The other picture shows the same image that has been made into a quilt.

SEEC art educator, Carolyn Eby, regularly creates lessons around particular artists for our SEEC classes. When she was looking for a new artist to highlight, she came across the artwork of Bisa Butler. She was inspired and immediately knew that she wanted to highlight Bisa Butler in her classroom. Carolyn was struck by how Bisa Butler’s quilted textile artwork looked like it might be painted instead of being created with fabric. 

A class of preschoolers sits on the floor looking at an art educator who is holding a piece of textile for the class to look at and talk about.
Carolyn shows a class an example of other types of textile art.  

 As Carolyn looked at Bisa Butler’s pieces, she noted the colors, patterns, and fabric that Bisa Butler used. Carolyn was excited to create projects that encouraged her classes to explore these topics. In early childhood art classes, moving beyond crayons, markers, and paper, makes the projects particularly special. For this project, the children were able to use exciting materials and use them in novel ways. Children used fabric as their canvas instead of paper and used glue as a marker or crayon instead of using it simply as a tool that sticks things together. They were introduced to the techniques of sewing and weaving and cut up pieces of clothing that they had previously worn. Through this process the children began thinking about the fabric all around them in different ways.  

Carolyn strived to be thoughtful about how she presented Bisa Butler to the class.

While it was the artwork that drew Carolyn into teaching about Bisa Butler, she was thrilled to be able to present the class with a contemporary black female artist. Carolyn strived to be thoughtful about how she presented Bisa Butler to the class. She spent a lot of time researching her background, techniques, and philosophies.  

Art educator is holding up an early piece of Bisa Butler and gesturing as if asking a question
Carolyn shows the children an example of Bisa Butlers early textile art. The children talked about the fabric and textures that they saw.  

As she researched, Carolyn decided against the children creating their own portraits. She discovered that Bisa Butler makes portraits of people that she has kinship and ancestry with, people that she wants to dignify and whose stories she wants to share. Carolyn decided that this idea was not one that the children should try to imitate because this portrait part of Bisa Butler’s artwork felt sacred. 

While the classes did not create their own portraits as part of this project, they did spend time talking about how Bisa Butler makes portraits to dignify people and share their stories. Throughout the project, the classes looked carefully at many of Bisa Butler’s portraits and discussed the people represented and wondered about why Bisa Butler used specific fabrics with certain individuals. For example, when the class looked at The Storm, the Whirlwind, and the Earthquake, a portrait of Frederick Douglas, the children noticed the letters on the fabric which make up his sleeves. Carolyn used this as an opportunity to tell Federick Douglas’s story and the class talked about how it is unfair that some people were not allowed to learn to read or write because of the color of their skin. As the children added to their projects, they continued to be exposed to both the artwork and the process of Bisa Butler and learned more about the individuals represented in her art. 

An example of an unfinished piece of textile art that a child created inspired by the work of Bisa Bulter.  

Over the course of five sessions, SEEC’s preschool three-year-old and four-year-old classes created their own textile artwork while exploring the fabrics and techniques that Bisa Butler uses in her artwork. We will be posting additional blogs that focus on how the children (1) made batiks, (2) collaged with fabric, (3) added sewing elements, (4) explored weaving and Kente cloth, and (5) final reflections from Carolyn.  

Carolyn noted that Bisa Butler could not have been a better inspiration for a project like this and that the children fell in love with her artwork and her story.