Reflection: Bisa Butler Project

This is the final blog of a six-part series on a project inspired by Bisa Butler. In this blog, SEEC’s former art educator Carolyn Eby reflects on the entire project which is discussed in-depth in the previous blogs – Inspiration, Batik, Collage, Sewing, and Kente Cloth 

A chose up of a child's project in process, squares of colorful fabric has been glued to a batik inspired fabric background which is mounted on a sturdy tag board base. Text at the bottom says: Reflection: Bisa Butler Project: A SEEC Story

Overall, the Bisa Butler inspired project could not have been more of a success. The process gave the children the opportunity to learn new skills like cutting fabric and sewing. It allowed them to explore textiles, learn more about the clothes they wear, and make connections between fabrics and their personalities.  

Carolyn points to a an example fabric resist to show the children what their resist fabrics will look like, children watch from the carpet
Carolyn shows the children examples of what their finished glue resist fabric pieces will look like during a lesson on batik.  

The project also introduced them to the artwork of Bisa Butler who the classes fell in love with. They even decided that Bisa Butler should represent the letter “B” in their classroom alphabets. Carolyn was excited to highlight the work of a Black, contemporary, female artist. She explained that she is continuously searching for more black, indigenous, people of color, and other underrepresented artists. She says that what we are currently doing, in terms of teaching diversity, is not enough. She cited the fact that most art museums show majority white men as their artists. As an art teacher, she strives to introduce young children to a wide variety of diverse artists so that the children are able to embrace artists like Bisa Butler.  

Children sitting at various tables use brushes to spread glue on batik inspired fabrics so they can attach fabrics they collected in their baskets.
The children became immersed in working on their Bisa Butler inspired fabrics.  

When thinking about what she might have done differently, Carolyn explained that she could have slowed down and taught even more classes on the subject. Even though they worked on the project for a long time, six classes, Carolyn said that the children “didn’t seem tired of it.” If she had taught more lessons on the subject, she would have gone more in depth about how fabric is made. She explained that slowing down and truly breaking down ideas into their core components is something that she is always trying to do as an educator and is constantly surprised by how much further and deeper she could go with a subject.  

On the left a child spread glue on their batik inspired fabric to attach fabrics gathered in a basket to their left, on the right a child attaches a piece of fabric to their batik project using a paintbrush with glue
Using textiles as a medium was a new experience for many of the children. They painted, cut, glued, and stitched as part of this project.  

Another challenge for Carolyn was how the children interpreted the layering of fabric. Carolyn designed the project to allow the children to layer freely but as the children collaged fabric to their pieces, Carolyn noticed that they were beginning to cover up the beautiful batiks they had previously made. Even though she was excited for the children to use layering as an artistic aspect since Bisa uses layering as a technique a lot, Carolyn had not anticipated just how into layering some of the children would become. She felt conflicted because she wanted their batiks to be a visible part of the finished pieces, but she wanted the children to be free to express themselves. Upon reflection Carolyn said, “that was sort of a learning exercise for me, this is their art, these are their choices. You can encourage but you don’t want to move things or change things.”  

Additionally, Carolyn had some concrete recommendations for anyone trying out this project:  

  • Make collaborative batiks to use in the collage. Rather than individual batiks as the base of the project 
  • Use thick string (not loose yarn) when sewing 
Carolyn pauses wiping the table to talk to a child, they are painting a piece of fabric with blue, red and black paints
While tidying up, Carolyn pauses to check in on a child who is working on their batik inspired fabric.

Lastly, Carolyn noted that a huge goal, for this project and all her projects, is for the children to “walk out feeling successful and capable.” She explains that her goal is not even for them to love art; it is more important to her that they feel capable. She wants to help give them the support so they can feel like they can keep going even if some of the skills are new or difficult. That was one thing that was great about the Bisa Butler project. By introducing them to making art out of textiles, the children were exposed to a whole new skill set. Carolyn worked closely with each child so they could feel both independent and secure in their abilities at the same time while working with a new medium for them.  

Thanks for reading our six-part teacher feature on Carolyn’s Bisa Butler Project! You can read all six parts here.

Learn more about Bisa Butler and the story of batik fabric on our Learning Lab Page!

Kente Cloth and Weaving: Bisa Butler Project

This blog is part of a six-part series focusing on an art project lead by former art educator Carolyn Eby on Bisa Butler. This blog is part five and will focus on exploring Kente cloth. The previous blogs in this series include, Inspiration, Batiks, Collage, and Sewing. The last blog is a Reflection on the whole project. 

Carolyn demonstrates weaving using fabric strips and a large wooden table top loom. Words at the bottom read "Kente Cloth, Bisa Butler Project"

For this lesson, the children learned about kente cloth. Like batiks, Bisa Butler regularly uses kente cloth in her designs, but she does not create or weave the fabric she uses. kente is probably the best-known African fabric. It originated with the Asante and Ewe peoples. Historically kente cloth was worn by kings; today, it is worn as a symbol of pride. People wear kente cloth to important ceremonies like weddings or graduations. kente cloth differs from batik because batik designs are printed onto existing blank fabric, while the designs on kente cloth are created in the weaving process. Learn more about kente cloth here. 

3 image collage, to the left carolyn uses a clear bin with tape strips on top to demonstrate the back and forth motion of weaving. On the top right children touch their bellies mimicking Carolyn, there is a loom in the foreground, on the bottom right Carolyn points out images of Bisa Butlers work on an easel as children lean forward to see better.
Carolyn uses a large plastic bin to demonstrate the weaving process on a large scale.  

While Carolyn did not want the children making or cutting up kente cloth, she did want to introduce the children to the idea of weaving. They handled woven cloth and compared the front of the cloth to the back of the cloth. The classes learned that the root of fabric is in hand woven cloth but that much of the clothes that they wear today have been made by a machine. Carolyn gave the children a couple of different opportunities to experience weaving. She set up a simple standing loom for them to explore and she created her loom using a large plastic bin with duct tape holding down the wrap fabric. This allowed her to space out the warp so the children could more easily weave the weft fabric.  

Carolyn also wanted to carefully discuss the importance of the kente cloth. The children talked about why they do or do not wear kente cloth depending on their cultural background. She also wanted to highlight how this fabric is worn with pride and can represent aspects of a person’s cultural heritage. To explore this idea, she encouraged the children to choose cloth with patterns that might represent who they are.  

On the left a child looks at their piece which features some fabric with special prints and sequins. On the right a child adds some additional printed fabrics
Children added additional fabrics to their pieces that had special meaning to them.

She reached out to the families and invited them to send in old clothes or fabric that they felt comfortable with their child cutting up for this project. In her email to the adults, Carolyn explained that Bisa would use her parents’ clothing when creating her art. Many of the children instantly understood the importance of these clothes from home and many did not want to cut them up even though families had sent these fabrics for the purpose of being used in this project. 

While some children choose not to cut up their old play clothes, others used these family fabrics in unexpected and beautiful ways. One child cut up pieces of their grandmother’s dress to add as finishing touches to their collage. Another child’s family sent in a skirt with bells on it. The child used only the draw strings and bells on their piece; carefully gluing only the strings so the bells could still move. 

A child uses scissors to cup a piece of fabric to add to their collaged batik.

Adding the special fabric was the last step of the project. The children started by creating a batik inspired base, added fabric collage, layered that with sewing designs, and finished their piece by selecting cloth that represented them for finishing touches. Both the children and Carolyn could not have been more thrilled with how the artwork turned out!  

Read Carolyn’s reflections on the whole project in our next blog.  

Sewing: Bisa Butler Project

This is part four of a six-part blog series on textile artist Bisa Bulter. The previous blogs were on Inspiration, Batiks, and Collage. The future blogs are on Kente Cloth and a Reflection on the project. This blog is on Sewing. 

A child holds up their artwork to add stitch, their art work is a piece of self created batik style fabric mounted to a piece of cardstock, fabric scraps have been collaged on top and holes hammered around the edge for the child to use to add stitches.  At the bottom are the words "Sewing/Bisa Butler Project/A SEEC Story"

After the children finished collaging, Carolyn gathered up their artwork. Carolyn then started the labor intensive and noisy process of hammering holes using a leather working tool along the border of each of the pieces. Carolyn noted that using a hole punch would not have been ideal because it would have been hard on her hands and might have hurt the fabric that the children had already glued onto their art.  

Top left, Carolyn helps a child turn their project as they choose where to start their stitching, bottom left, a child has run out of yard for their stitching and is cutting off the extra, right, Carolyn demonstrates how to use a small folded rectangle of cardstock to thread a needle.
Children used large plastic sewing needles to thread yarn through the holes Carolyn created on the edges of their projects. They were invited to add stitches wherever they liked, even through the middle of their work.  

Carolyn then replayed the video of Bisa Butler and had the children focus on her sewing techniques. The children loved watching Bisa use her huge sewing machine. It reminded them of driving a car or using a joystick to play a game. Carolyn encouraged the classes to observe how Bisa used the machine to make different types of lines with the thread. Carolyn explained to the class that they “don’t have to go around the outside. You can make lines going through the middle” with their thread. Knowing that they could stitch in any pattern they wanted was very freeing for the children; it really let them be creative. 

A child places the end of a piece of yarn into a small folded rectangle of cardstock.  This "hotdog" will be used to help the child more easily thread the needle
Children learned to thread their needles by folding the end of their yarn into a piece of paper, they would then use this “hot dog” into the eye of their large plastic needles.  

The children had to be taught the basic components of sewing. To show them how to thread a needle, Carolyn taught the children to use a “hotdog bun” technique that she learned from art teacher Cassie Stevens. Carolyn explained that “sewing is very different from any other art making activity” and the children had to learn a new skill set. But rather than getting frustrated, “they loved the stitching” and continued to use the techniques learned in future projects.  

On the left, a child pulls a piece of yarn through the eye of a plastic needles, on the right, a child pulls up a piece of yarn from a ball of yarn, the ball of yarn is contained in a spherical clear plastic compartment of grocery store apple packaging
Carolyn set up a yarn station where children were able to choose and cut their own yarn. She repurposed the plastic packaging used to hold a set of apples from the grocery store to corral balls of yarn as children pulled and cut.    

Learn more about the last step of the project in our blog about exploring Kente Cloth and read Carolyn’s Reflection on the entire project. If you would like to learn more about this project you can access our Smithsonian Learning Lab collection based on this lesson.

Fabric Collage: Bisa Butler Project

This blog is part three in a six-part series. The first blog post focused on the inspiration and preparation of the Bisa Butler focused project. The second blog post showed how the children made their own batiks which would serve as the base for the rest of the project. Part four is about sewing. Part five is on exploring kente cloth and part six is a reflection on the whole process. This blog post focuses on how the children approached the fabric collage.  

An educator sits at a table next to a child, they both point to a piece of cloth the child has glued to their projects.  At the bottom Text reads " Collage/ Bisa Butler Project/ A SEEC Story"

After making their batiks, the next step for the children was to add fabric to their piece. To show Bisa Butler’s process, Carolyn showed the children a video that starts with Bisa Butler walking through a fabric store and touching fabric. After watching the video, the class talked about how Bisa Butler used both her sense of sight and her sense of touch to choose fabric. Carolyn wanted to emphasize the role of touch and texture in Bisa Butler’s process. The classes looked closely at Bisa Bulter’s portrait of Questlove for the New York Times Magazine and noticed the lace and beading that she used to emphasize the texture of his afro. Then Carolyn gave the children swatches of fabric to touch and asked them how they might correlate with elements of their personalities. 

On the left, a child holds out a flat basket with several pieces of green and yellow fabric scraps, on the right a child adds fabric scraps to a flat basket from a large tray of fabric
Children were given baskets and invited to “shop” for the fabrics they wanted to use in their pieces. 

Carolyn set up a store in the art studio where the children could go shopping and choose their fabric to use for the collage. Each child had their own shopping basket and she encouraged them to choose whatever fabric they wanted from the wide variety that she had placed out. The textiles in the class’s store included sequin flip fabric and themed fabric like Zelda and Cars. As the children shopped, Carolyn observed and noted, “it was interesting to see what they picked.” 

A child sits and uses scissors to cut a scrap of patterned fabric
Children approached working with fabric in many ways. Some cut them up into very small pieces while others added them onto their pieces directly. Some kept the fabric to the edges of the batik fabric they created, and others opted to cover it up completely. 

After choosing the fabric they wanted to work with, the children started cutting the fabric into various shapes. Carolyn explained that the children “really connected with collage in a different way than they would have if we used paper or any other mixed media.” Cutting fabric, which requires tension to make smooth lines, posed a challenge to many of the preschoolers but they were eager to continue working with the material. Some children spent the whole class cutting fabric into tiny pieces to add to their collage and Carolyn loved seeing all their styles come through.  

For the children, being able to cut something that you might wear as clothing was genuinely exciting. Carolyn had invited families to send in clothing that they were comfortable being cut to use for the project. Families sent in a variety of clothing including clothes that belonged to people important to them like their grandmother. Some children were excited to cut up their old clothing while others did not want to cut up their old play clothes. Carolyn talked to the children about how Bisa Butler reused clothing from her family to create her portraits.  

on the left, a child examines a fabric swatch, on the right the same child child sits at a table and picks scraps of fabric from a flat basket, they are holding a paint brush used for glue in one hand.
The children were able to choose the textiles that appealed to them and add those pieces to their collage.  

As they explored the textiles through their sense of touch while shopping and cutting while collaging, the children were growing their knowledge of fabric and fiber arts. They were becoming more aware of the fabric that they wore while learning about the types of textiles that Bisa Butler used. As the sessions progressed, the children started saying, “My t-shirt feels silky” or “I feel the seams on my pants.” For Carolyn this represented a goal of the project. As she explained, the children began to make “the connection with the fibers all around them and the fibers that Bisa used.” 

Learn more about the rest of the project in the upcoming blogs on Sewing, Kente Cloth, and Reflection on the project. You can also check out part 1 and part 2 of this series. Connect more deeply with this lesson through our Bisa Butler Learning Lab collection.

Object of the Month: Calder Gallery at the National Gallery of Art

As was the case in September, this month’s Object of the Month is actually an entire gallery. This gallery is dedicated to the artist, Alexander Calder, and is located in the newly re-opened East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. The latest iteration of this gallery is bright, airy, colorful, and full of shadows. It is in many ways the perfect art space for a young child can while away their time looking and getting lost in their imaginations.
The objects within the gallery can be used in conjunction to several age-appropriate themes.

  • Shadows – The sundial just outside the Smithsonian Castle in the Haupt Garden  + Moonbear’s Shadow by Frank Asch would round out the experience.
  • Color – Calder’s bold color palette is a great way to introduce your child to colors.
  • Shape – Circles, triangles, even a quadrilateral (the elephant’s ears)!
  • Ocean – Finny Fish offers an imaginative take on our ocean friends- combine it with a trip to the Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall.
  • Balance – His mobiles are a great way to introduce children to the concept of balance.
  • Movement/Wind – Take notice, Calder’s mobiles move and come alive!
  • Space – Many of his pieces reminiscent of the solar system, especially Vertical Constellation with Bomb.


Infants, Toddlers, and Twos


Visit the NGA’s website to learn more about each of these objects.

The animals in the center of the gallery are a perfect height for your infant and toddler, especially those who are in the stroller and struggling to see what is around them. I like the idea of pairing these objects with Sandra Boyton’s Are You a Cow or Doreen Cronin’s Click Clack Moo. I am also very fond of the Crinkly Worm and pairing it with one of my all-time favs- Inch by Inch by Leo Lionni. Whichever literary direction you go, you can also choose to bring photos, stuffed animals, or even watch a short video featuring one of the animals. Head out to the nearby terrace and see if you can imagine moving like a bull or a worm.  If worms, cows, and bulls aren’t your thing, then focus on the elephant. This sculpture is a playful interpretation of the animal and is certain to capture your child’s attention. Enjoy an elephant hunt though the 3Smithsonian and stop by the Sackler Gallery to see the Seated Ganesha, the rotunda of the Natural History Museum to see Henry the Elephant and of course, the Zoo. Take a photo of each visit and display it somewhere at home where your child can see it (you could make a mobile if you want to stay true to the Calder theme). By documenting their experience, it will help them connect events and see their own learning.

Threes and Four

I was recently in this gallery with a group of adults as part of a workshop and I was asked to work with a partner to create something Calder–inspired with paper and some scotch tape. We don’t often think about it, but museums, with the right materials, can also be art studios.  I love these types of activities not just because they support creativity, but because they encourage young children to look carefully. Here are a few gallery-safe ideas:

  • Sketch the shadows on the walls2
  • Use pipe cleaners to make shapes and forms.
  • Add pieces to a mobile that you have started
  • Have them tear a piece of paper into one of the shapes they see  (just remember a trash bag).

Enjoy, have fun, and don’t forget to share your ideas with us too!

The Art Room

We recently featured our art educator, Carolyn Eby, in our bi-weekly Teacher Feature.  We thought it would be great to take another look at the work she is doing with all of our age groups. Check out some of her great ideas!

Infants Explore the Arctic

Carolyn used frozen paints and invited each child to mix them with other colors on their tables. After which, she took a mono print of their work. Children later ripped the mono print to create a collage – a fun activity that also helped them build important fine motor skills!

Toddlers Sand Paint

This sand paint, made with puffy paint and baking soda,  was delivered straight to the toddler class in dump trucks — the perfect accompaniment to their study of, you guessed it, trucks!

PreK-3 Color Mixing

Our preschool students join Carolyn every afternoon for art. Here we see them exploring color with the help of a light table. They also used eyedroppers and watercolors to explore what happened when the colors ran together. So focused!


PreK-4 Shapes

Like the three-year-olds, the fours join Carolyn every afternoon. Here she took a common  theme, shapes, and added depth. On the floor, the students are participating in a drawing game in which the dice indicate a color and a shape. Then, she had the class paint with sponges cut into specific shapes. Finally, she has them cutting shapes to match an artwork. They approached the concept in a variety of ways and thus, got a deeper understanding of it and had a lot of fun!

The Everyday Artist

I am, by training, an art historian. After having taught for more than fifteen years in museums, I consider myself a museum educator by experience. I do not, however, consider myself an art educator and _MG_0755yet, I find myself in the position of having to provide and support art based projects. I am not going to lie, I have often felt a little out of my element and concerned about creating authentic art experiences. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one. I am certain there are other early childhood educators and parents out there who dread the “art activity” largely because many of us have the mindset of either being good or bad artists.

I am happy to report that over the past five years, I have managed to take on a different perspective. I’ve learned that my art projects don’t have to have the same goals as those of art educators. I use these projects as a way to extend a theme, facilitate a creative experience and shape a community atmosphere. I don’t try to teach technique or fundamentals and leave that to the experts. Here are some ideas for getting to your own place of Zen with your student’s or children’s art activities.

Extend the Idea

In a class featuring African masks, we visited the National Museum of African Art and explored this mask from Burkino Faso. Our conversation began simply by observing the piece and then connecting the mask with shape of a butterfly wing. We then talked about how the mask connected to nature – not only in its subject matter, but also in its meaning and use. On our way back to the classroom, we walked through a nearby butterfly garden in the hopes of seeing a real butterfly.

Once we returned, I provided students with large cut-outs of butterfly wings and asked them to design their own butterfly patterns. I was drawn to this idea because it extended the butterfly theme and supported the same connection with art and nature. I also liked it because it was simple and manageable for everyone.

Keep it Open-ended

_MG_1294I try to avoid prescribed rules or a specific set of steps for a project because it helps me stay in my comfort zone, and also sets the children up for success.

After a visit to the Freer Gallery of Art’s Peacock Room, we spent the end of class creating our own peacock-inspired painting and frame by using the Whistler’s blue, green and gold color palette. Again, this project was simple to execute but underlined the importance of the color scheme. I also thought it worked well since Whistler felt that his artwork should be beautiful.  Not giving them too many parameters enabled them to create something using their abilities and to do it in their own individual way.

Provide a Variety of Materials

I think a range of materials helps speak to different children and what interests them. For example, when designing the butterfly wings I provided markers, paint and oil pastel crayons. Each produced different effects and gave the children a chance to experiment with different mediums. It was interesting to see what they chose to work with and how they used it. The opportunity to choose for themselves felt like an exercise in creativity. With that said, the trick is trying not to overwhelm them with too many options.

Provide Inspiration

IMG_3536Like the materials, the inspiration piece has to balance. I like posting images around the room when doing an art project – whether it’s an example of another child’s work or of a famous artist, having inspiration available can help get the creative juices flowing.


_MG_1320Finally, I love to give children the chance to share.  Of course there are times when children don’t want to share, but I find that they still benefit from the conversation. I begin by asking them to describe their artwork and then inquire about one or two interesting components. Why they chose a color? Did an element mean something? What did they like about the project? The class gets to see multiple perspectives, practice speaking/listening in a group and be proud of their accomplishments.


Want to have some fun with us? Join us for our Preschool Pioneers and create your own art project.