Making Batiks: Bisa Butler Project

This blog is part 2 in a six-part series about the Fiber Arts unit our art educator Carolyn Eby created inspired by the work of textile artist Bisa Butler. Throughout this unit children explored important aspects of Bisa Butlers works from batik to collage, to sewing, to Kente cloth and a final reflection from Carolyn. This blog is about how the children explored batik.  

Children use brushes and paints to apply color to pieces of fabric taped to plastic trays.  At the bottom is a heading reading "Batik, Bisa Butler Project, A SEEC Story"

To start their Bisa Butler inspired project, the children created their own batik inspired cloth as a base for their project. Batik fabric is one of the many types of fabric that Bisa uses in her artwork. While batiks are quite popular in West Africa with many meaningful prints, the fabric did not originate there.  Batik is a method of creating designs on fabric using wax resist that originated in Indonesia. Through 19th century colonialism, European copies of batiks became popular in West Africa where they have taken on their own unique significance.  

A group of sitting preschool looks at a picture of Bisa Butlers quilted piece "I Know why the caged bird sings" held by Carolyn. Carolyn is seated in a chair and pointing toward the picture.
Carolyn introduces the children to the art of Bisa Butler. She highlighted the different batik fabrics that Bisa used and discussed how different batik patterns can have different meanings. In this piece “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” they noticed the print called “Michelle’s Shoes.” 

Carolyn explained that while Bisa Butler does not create batiks, she purposefully chooses the batiks based on the meaning embedded in the fabric patterns. She had the class look carefully at Bisa Butler’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (2019) which shows the portraits of four African American college students sitting on the steps of Atlanta University in 1900s. For this work, Bisa Butler used a piece of batik called “Michelle’s Shoes” which represents Michelle Obama’s shoes. The children discussed how “Michelle’s Shoes” represented progress, but Michelle Obama needed to lean on the bravery of the young women in the original portrait. To help the children connect to these concepts, Carolyn had the children reflect on the principles of “fair” and “unfair.” 

Two images show children squeezing bottle of glue and using the glue to create images. On the left the child has made abstract blows, on the right there appear to be pencil lines the child is trying to follow wit the glue
Children were given glue bottles to draw their designs on their fabric. Some children used them to draw defined designs like shapes or smiley faces, while others enjoyed exploring the medium and allowed the glue to flow and pool. 

Carolyn then encouraged the children to think about the messages their own fabric art could convey. When creating their own batiks, Carolyn began by encouraging the children to think about their families or people they are close with because Bisa Butler’s first quilt was a portrait of her grandmother and grandfather. She had the children think about the lines and shapes that might represent them or their family. After brainstorming, she gave the children bottles of glue and they drew patterns with glue on white fabric. Some children immediately understood the concept of drawing with glue. They drew things like donuts, dinosaurs, or smiles because their family makes them smile. For the younger children, it was more about the experience of exploring the glue; they drew scraggles or let the glue pool into large circles. In the end, all the styles made beautiful batiks. 

Children sit a round a round table and use brushes and paints to apply color to their batiks. they are wearing masks and  smocks
To avoid colors of the batiks being mixed and muddied children chose two primary colors and then were given white and black to create tints and shades when painting their batiks. 

The next class was about color. They began the class by talking about the colors they saw in batiks. The children noticed the batiks were vibrant, beautiful, and full of colors. Carolyn then let each child pick two primary colors of acrylic paint. When mixed, the two primary colors will create a second color. She also gave the children black and white so they could create shades and tint their colors. The children used their paint to add color to their fabric with the dried glue shapes and symbols that they had previously made.  

Three images showing the glue batik making process, in the top left a child uses a bottle of glue to squeeze blobs of glue, in the bottom left a child uses a brush to apply red and blue paint to their dried glue batik, on the right Carolyn shows examples of what the shape left by the washed away glue will look like.
Carolyn demonstrates to the children how adding paint to the glue batik will result in a result in a white resist where the glue is blocking the paint from the fabric. This technique is similar to the way wax is used as a resist in making Batiks. 

After the paint dried, Carolyn soaked the fabric in hot, soapy water and then peeled off the glue which left white marks on the fabric where the glue had been creating a glue resist batik. Carolyn washed, ironed, and adhered the newly created batik cloth to cardstock. The children would use their batik as the base for the next steps in the project.  

Learn more about the rest of the project in the upcoming blogs on Collage, Sewing, Kente Cloth, and Reflection on the project. You can also read part 1 of this series on Carolyn’s Inspiration.

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