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.

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.  

You can read part 2 of this series on Batiks here.