Button-and-glue artists

Quilters: Head Start preschoolers delight in creating fabric portraits of themselves.

March 02, 2000|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Each colorful square has a life of its own, an imprint of the maker's young spirit.

Held together by glue and love, the faces of children stare out from the dyed cotton patches, with button eyes, sequin cheeks and little beaded noses.

The artists themselves -- all 3- or 4-year-olds at the Ellicott City Head Start program -- are barely old enough to hold a pair of scissors and cut a straight line, but they've each made a square portrait of themselves from fabric.

As part of an arts project co-sponsored by Head Start, the square patches will be sewn together into two 10-by-9-foot quilts that will hang this spring in the lobby of Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City, the same building where the children attend classes each day.

The multicolored patches reflect the cultural variety of the pupils.

"The creativity of these squares is just so amazing," says Carleen Wallington, director of the Ellicott City Head Start program. "The kids were just so excited about making them. It was all they could talk about."

The quilting project took place over three weeks at the arts center. It was a joint venture of the Arts Council, the county's Head Start program and the National Quilting Association, headquartered in the same building.

Internationally renowned textile artist Maria-Theresa Fernandes was the visiting artist-in-residence for the project.

Fernandes said it was the first time she has worked with children so young and so active. The project turned out to be a labor of love.

"They were so excited all of the time. You really could only get them to work for about 30 minutes each day. That's the length of their attention span," said Fernandes, a native of Kenya and now a Baltimore resident. "You really couldn't control them. By the end of each session, there was fabric all over the place."

Still, she said, "it was a wonderful experience. Some of the squares are quite amusing. It was amazing for me to see how well they related to each other."

Yesterday morning, 3-year-old Debora Asamoah-Frimpong held her quilt patch up for a visitor to see. She is a shy girl dressed in a brightly colored dress, her braids cornrowed beautifully around her head.

Her delight was obvious as Fernandes pulled hers and others' completed quilt patches from a box and allowed each pupil to hold one in their hands.

Family portraits

Danielle Funkhouser, 4, opted to make a picture of her mother, Nora, instead of making one of herself. Not surprisingly, her mother's picture looks very much like Danielle: yellow yarn for hair and button eyes.

Trent Mathis, also 4, included his whole family on his patch: mother, father, little boy and younger sister.

"I want to take mine home to show Mommy," shouted Chanel Sparks, a rambunctious 4-year-old with long ponytails. Her quilt square has a green bow tied in orange yarn hair, and buttons for the nose. A light mocha-colored chiffon fabric has been cut into an oval for the head, almost the exact color of Chanel's skin.

Chanel made her square look like her, but that wasn't the case with all of the children in the Head Start class, which is a veritable rainbow of ethnic and racial identities. Not all of the children chose fabrics and colors that matched their skin tones.

"It was a real eye opener to see which fabrics the children chose," Fernandes says. "I don't think they see color. I had all these different shades and types of fabrics to choose from, and many of them chose to look completely different than how they look in the mirror. They chose to be expressive."

Book as inspiration

A big source of inspiration for Fernandes and the children was the popular book, "We Are All Alike, We Are All Different," written and illustrated by a kindergarten class at Cheltenham Elementary School near Philadelphia and published by Scholastic in 1991.

The book features children who are as racially diverse as the Head Start pupils, and Fernandes brought in a few examples of her ethnically varied work as an example to the children.

"The [Head Start] center is so culturally diverse. For many of the children, their primary language is not English so you really get a true representation of the community here," Wallington said.

Wallington says the quilt project was a terrific opportunity for pupils -- 90 percent of whom are from economically disadvantaged homes in the Ellicott City area -- to take part in something outside their usual experience.

The quilting project "is just the sort of thing Head Start does well," she said. "This kind of project gives these kids a chance to do something like make a quilt -- something they'd probably never get a chance to do otherwise, and at such an early age."

These sorts of programs "really create a wonderful means of communication, especially for those who may not be as successful in other subjects," Fernandes said. "The arts are so important for young kids. The earlier you get them started, the more likely it will stay with them all their lives."

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