Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Born 1949: Deborah Butterfield

Deborah Butterfield is one of the most popular living American sculptors. It sometimes seems like every museum in the country has one of her works. Her sculptures are easy to like and instantly recognizable because they depict horses—an appealing subject—in a warm and sympathetic manner, as though each were a portrait of a special friend.

The mysterious part of Deborah's work is that while most of it appears to be made of driftwood and scrap lumber, it is actually made from cast bronze with a patina that matches the natural material exactly. The process is quite complicated. Deborah builds the original maquette from organic materials, then disassembles it, and covers each separate piece with a ceramic-shell molding material that is capable of picking up exacting detail. The wood is completely burned away during firing. The mold is then used for the bronze casting.

Deborah has loved horses since she was a child, and bought her first one while she was in college. For most of her adult life she has lived on a ranch outside Bozeman, Montana, where she keeps several horses of her own, boards others, practices her riding skills, and hosts horse-related events. Deborah identifies with horses and sometimes sees her sculptures as self-portraits. She also sympathizes with them and sometimes her sculptures reflect lessons that she has learned by interacting with them. Other times Deborah speaks of the horse form as an arbitrary choice that enables her to experiment with various materials, like a blank canvas.

In her treatment of horses, Deborah rejects the bold stallions of traditional equestrian sculpture and the association of horses with war. By using humble scrap materials—whether scrap metal or twigs and branches—Deborah creates humble images of docile mares who seem as vulnerable as people.

Deborah began exhibiting in the 1970s, and her work was quickly accepted. She has continued building expressive horses unto the present, when she is in her mid-60s.

Deborah with a collection of driftwood and scrap on her ranch near Bozeman, Montana

Background: Deborah was born in San Diego, on the day of the 75th Kentucky Derby. Nothing is indicated anywhere online about her parents or upbringing.

Training: Deborah earned both a B.A. and an M.F.A. at the UC Davis.

Private life: In 1974, when she was 25, Deborah married an artist that she met while attending the University of California at Davis named John Buck. They have two sons. From 1976 to 1990, John was an assistant professor of sculpture at Montana State University in Bozeman.

John Buck, born 1946

Deborah and John in 2010
when they received an Arts Award
from the Governor of Montana

John Buck is a very interesting artist whose work is as varied in form, content, and materials as Deborah's is unified. The few examples available on the internet suggest that his art is highly innovative and deeply thoughtful, but his work is not widely exhibited. Here is one of his most interesting pieces. It was advertised by the Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle for $32,000.

John Buck
Arch of Constantine, 2012
Jelutong wood, 66" tall

Deborah and John divide their time between a ranch with separate studios for each near Bozeman, Montana and studio space in Hawaii. Deborah also must spend a lot of time in Walla Walla, Washington, where her foundry is located.

Deborah working in her Hawaii studio

Our photos of Deborah's Horses

Aluminum Horse #3, 1982
San Diego / Jan's Photo, 2017

Orion, 1988
Denver / Jan's photo, 2010

Second Daughter, 1989
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Pohina, 2001
San Francisco Airport / Jan's photo, 2015
Cast bronze with patina

Half Moon, 2007
Figge / Jan's photo, 2010

Tarkio, 2011
Flint / Jan's photo, 2013

Horse at Cantor Museum, no title, no date given
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2009

Internet grabs

Horse, 1976
Mud and Straw on armature with horseshoes
6 1/2 feet tall / Internet

Horse #5, 1978
Mud, sticks, wire, ground paper, dextrine and steel
SFMOMA / Internet

Untitled, 1983
Scrap metal from an Air Stream trailer
5th & J, Sacramento / Internet

Ferdinand, 1990
Found steel, 6 ft tall

About the sculpture below, Deborah gets scrap metal by the ton from a salvage yard in Rockford, Illinois. When this pile of rebar arrived at her studio, with its large chunks of concrete still attached, she included it in the sculpture.

Rockford, 2013
Welded found steel with concrete
Greg Kucera Gallery, sold sculpture / Internet

Ormar (#4623.1), 2015
at a Gallery, exchanged on Internet