Along with her artist-husband John Buck, Deborah Butterfield divides her time between a farm in Montana, and studio space in Hawaii. She is known for her sculptures of horses made from found objects, like metal, and especially pieces of wood. Butterfield’s work has been exhibited widely and there is demand among art collectors for her sculptures. One of her most prestigious galleries is the Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, Washington.
Bronze hasn’t always been Butterfield’s choice of materials. In fact, her earliest works from the mid-1970s were made from sticks and natural detritus gathered on her property in Montana. She explains: “The materials and images were meant to suggest that the horses were both figures and ground, merging external world with the subject. I first used the horse images as a metaphorical substitute for myself–it was a way of doing a self-portrait one step removed from the specificity of Deborah Butterfield.” She began building full-size horses from metal salvaged from scrap yards in the early 1980s. She would sculpt a piece using metal, wood, and other materials fastened together with wire, then photograph the piece from all angles so as to be able to reassemble the piece in metal.
Still using her found object process today, it’s easy to see that the unevenly rusted surface of the found metal work suggests the coloring of types of horses—an appaloosa, chestnut or perhaps a dapple-gray. Butterfield is clearly not obsessed with replicating any aspect of the horse specifically, but in any one of the sculptures, the architectural structure, contour, and mass of the horse are readily apparent. Often, the weighty and crumpled metal pieces used for the shoulders and rump suggest powerful muscles. Carefully choosing from her scrap yard of parts and pieces, she suggests some of the most delicate and surprising aspects of the horse. A massive metal fire escape was twisted into a powerful stallion in a large work that is part of the collection of the Seattle Art Museum. In another work, the curve of an industrial part suggests the neck and mane of the horse in a most uncanny way.
The artist collects metal from wrecked cars, industrial salvage yards, demolished buildings and construction sites and combines them in her Montana studio to create these equine sculptures. Some of the works have utilized three-dimensional letters scavenged from commercial signage bringing an unexpected new element into play. Butterfield has also recently used painted metal from flat signage. Occasionally, recognizable elements such as a child’s tricycle can still be identified within the tangled assemblage of metal parts.
In constructing her horses Butterfield tries to alter the found shape of the metal pieces as little as possible. The separate parts are not often individually important but gain an elegant context in the artist’s ability to meld them into such a suggestive sculpture. She has said that her horses are intended to make a feminist statement. “I wanted to do these big, beautiful mares that were as strong and imposing as stallions but capable of creation and nourishing life. It was a very personal feminist statement.”
Butterfield also creates small sculptures, measuring roughly three feet tall by four feet in length, a size that the artist relates to ancient Chinese ceramic sculptures of the Tang Dynasty. They are not intended to be seen as colts or as baby horses, but as miniatures relating to artworks depicting horses. Butterfield has never been interested in the naturalistic depiction of horses in the common sense of realism in the art world. She prefers that her small works be viewed on pedestals to alleviate any confusion as to her intention regarding the abstract nature of her sculpture.
With works in museums and private collections across the country and around the world, Deborah Butterfield’s work is recognizable. See her most recent works to add to your collection at Art Dallas 2020 in the Greg Kucera Gallery Booth, April 16-19, 2020, at Dallas Market Hall in the Dallas Market Center.