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Deborah Butterfield

April 22 - July 30, 2006


The exquisite work of one of America's leading sculptors, Deborah Butterfield, is on exhibit at the Tucson Museum of Art, April 22 - July 30, 2006.

Deborah Butterfield transforms pieces of scrap metal and found wood into majestic life-size and small-scale horse sculptures that explore the essence and spirit of the horse. (right: Deborah Butterfield, Ferdinand, 1990, found steel, collection of the Yellowstone Art Museum)

Horses have been the single focus of Butterfield's work for over twenty years -- a remarkably prolonged, disciplined and ultimately poetic inquiry into our relationship with the organic other world, with other life forms, and with ourselves.

Her early works, first begun in 1973, are fragile forms created from mud, sticks, and straw as well as full-sized horses constructed of sticks and found metal, evoking horses either standing or resting on the ground. Since the mid-1980s she has been creating full-size and smaller works from sticks and branches, and casting the finished sculpture into bronze.

Butterfield says of her work, "I guess that my work with the real horse is so much about language and that my art has to do with imagining another form of life. It's that empathy; I'm trying to get the viewer to project himself or herself into the form of the horse."

This presentation of Butterfield's extraordinary sculpture is her first major traveling exhibition. Organized by the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana, the grouping of eleven major works is primarily drawn from the artist's own collection which is rarely seen in public.


About Deborah Butterfield

Deborah Butterfield offers a comprehensive overview of the internationally acclaimed Montana sculptor's magnificent horse sculptures, and celebrates the release of a major book on her remarkable artistic career. The majority of the horses in the show are on loan from the artist's personal collection, and have rarely, if ever, been seen by the public.

An enormously popular and significant American sculptor, Deborah Butterfield first gained wide notice at the 1979 Whitney Biennial. Horses have been the single, sustained focus of Butterfield's work for over 30 years -- a remarkably prolonged, disciplined, and ultimately poetic inquiry into our relationship with the organic world, with other life forms, and with ourselves. Her early work, fragile and awkward creations of mud, sticks, straw, and found metal, evoke horses either standing or resting on the ground. Since the mid-1980s she has been creating medium and full-size horses from driftwood branches, and casting the finished sculpture in bronze.

This recent release of Deborah Butterfield marks the first major academic survey of the artist's work and career. The book was authored by Robert Gordon and includes an introduction by Jane Smiley, an essay by John Yau, poems by Vicki Hearne, and was published by Henry N. Abrams, Inc. Deborah Butterfield is one of the world's leading sculptors and teachers of fine arts, with a solid career and many honors to her credit. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California at Davis, California, in 1972, followed by her Masters of Fine Arts degree in 1973. In 1997, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. This honor was repeated in 1998 by Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana. Butterfield's teaching career began in 1974 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. In 1979, she joined the staff of Montana State University, Bozeman, as an Assistant Professor and in 1984 became an Adjunct Assistant Professor and a Graduate Student Consultant.

Her honors and awards are numerous and include a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship in 1977; a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1980; a Citation for Excellence Award from the UC Davis and Cal Aggie Alumni Association in 1992; and an American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Awards in 1993.

Butterfield has exhibited across the United States and Europe. Her work is widely collected by private individuals and museums, and she has been commissioned to create site-specific sculptures by a number of significant museums and public sites, including the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Israel Museum; San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art; Oakland Museum; Urban Development Corporation of Boston Massachusetts -- Copley Square; the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Greenwich, Connecticut, Arts Council; the Portland, Oregon, International Airport; the Kansas City Zoo; and the Denver Art Museum.

Deborah Butterfield is arguably one of the most important sculptors working today. The horse is a key part of Western culture and mystique, and Butterfield has captured its spirit and beauty in a way that speaks clearly to all who view her art.


Deborah Butterfield's Casting Process

Deborah Butterfield's majestic bronze horses begin as enormous piles of wood sticks of various shapes and sizes. Under the artist's direction, the Walla Walla Foundry casts a large group of these sticks into bronze for what will become the armature of the work.

A bronze casting of a wood stick is made by taking the natural wood and covering it with up to nine coats of ceramic-shell molding material. This material is capable of picking up exacting detail and also is extremely thermal resistant, which allow it to withstand temperatures up to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. It is at this temperature that the ceramic shell is cured and the wood is completely burned away. The kiln used to cure the ceramic is then "fired down" (the temperature is reduced), and the ceramic shells are removed. Any ash left from the wood is vacuumed or washed out of the shells. The shells are taken to the wax-pattern department, where microcrystalline wax heated to a temperature of 200 degrees Fahrenheit is poured into the cavity within the shell. The pattern maker then pours the hot wax back out while slowly rotating the shell. This process is repeated several times until the wax inside the ceramic shell is 3/16-inch thick. The thickness of the wax will eventually become the thickness of the bronze alloy. Next the shells are connected at their tops with wax rods called "gates." These gates will guide the flow of metal from the top of the mold into the stick shells. The gated shells are then submerged into a cylindrical form full of plaster-based molding material, which hardens around the ceramic shells. When the plaster molding has set hard, it is placed inside a kiln and fired to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the wax inside the ceramic shells, and the connecting gates, are melted away. With the wax gone, the mold is removed from the kiln and poured full of molten bronze. When the metal has solidified, the plaster and ceramic materials are broken away from the bronze, revealing a metal copy of the original wood stick. (right: Deborah Butterfield, Isabelle, 2001, unique bronze cast, collection of the artist)

From this first group of cast-bronze sticks, the artist chooses the ones she will use to make the armature of a horse. One or two assistants (usually Mark Anderson, owner of the foundry, and Greg Raths, if they are working in Butterfield's Montana studio) help her to bend, cut, and weld these bronze sticks to form the permanent structure, or skeleton, that defines the innate gesture and expression of each horse.

Once a bronze armature has been assembled, Butterfield selects from the remaining wood sticks and places them, one at a time, on the armature, holding them as they are wired into place. The studio floor is covered with sticks, and the artist often tries the wood in different spots on each horse, sometimes working on two or three pieces at a time. When she is finished with the form -- now a bronze and wood horse, complete in detail -- it is taken to the foundry, where each wood stick is photographically documented and removed from the armature. All of the wood sticks are then cast in bronze and welded back on to the armature using the documentary photographs as guides. Once a work is cast, the artist often reviews it by cutting out certain sticks and welding different ones in. With the exception of some editions done in the Eighties, all of Butterfield's castings are therefore one of a kind.

Once the entire sculpture is in bronze, the metal shop finishes the details by tooling the welds and blemishes to texture the entire surface like wood. The piece is then sandblasted to prepare it for a patina. To begin the coloring process, the artist heats the work to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. A combination of white pigment and chemicals is sprayed and brushed onto the heated bronze. Many successive coats of patina are applied until the surface becomes the color the artist desires. The finished piece is then sealed with heated wax. In many cases the sticks look so realistic that many viewers must touch the sculpture to see it is bronze or wood.


Editor's note

readers may enjoy:

Sculpture: 18-19th Century, 19-20th Century, 20-21st Century

Deborah Butterfield introduces her work to a group of docents at its installation at the Nevada Museum of Art on June 15, 2007. [4:58] and in another video taken during the docent walkthrough on June 15, 2007, sculptor Deborah Butterfield reflects upon some of the philosophical and artistic elements contributing to her decisions to create sculptures of horses lying prone on the floor or ground. [5:51]

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Deborah Butterfield: Horse in Wax is available through the Sullivan Video Library at The Speed Art Museum which holds a sizable collection of art-related videos available to educators at no charge.

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.

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