It’s a crisp early autumn morning in Montana. Three inches of snow fell overnight coating the mountains and making the not-yet-frozen ground wet and mushy – so much so that Deborah Butterfield’s clogs cling to the mud like mini suction cups making popping sounds as she walks down the narrow lane to the paddock. She whistles and then calls out their names – Isabelle and PJ – and immediately two beautiful mares, one black and one bay, come running. Deborah goes from one to another making sure both get some of her attention. The love is as clear as the Montana morning. Deborah Butterfield loves her horses. They are as essential to her as breathing, and for several decades they have been the sole inspiration for a remarkable art career. “As a little girl I fell in love with horses. I was always drawing horses, but I stopped when I went to art school,” she says. “People just didn’t think it was a serious enough subject.” Fortunately for her and the art world, she soon came back to her first love.
To say Deborah Butterfield sculpts horses is too simplistic. Using wood, metal and bronze, she constructs, engineers, molds, hammers, pounds, rips and solders her pieces in what can be an epic struggle between artist and unrelenting materials. These days she is concentrating on two types of sculpture – bronze and steel. The bronze actually starts with wood. Over the years she has collected warehouses full of sticks of all shapes and sizes. They sit in oversized leaf recycling bags, just waiting for the artist to reclaim them. To construct a bronze horse she starts with an armature, or a skeleton, and then she begins attaching the wood pieces, wiring them one at a time, to the skeleton and to each other until she has a full horse. It is a painstaking process that can take days or weeks, and that’s just the beginning. Next comes the foundry.
The sculpture is wrapped in heavy plastic and transported to a facility in Walla Walla, Washington, where it’s taken apart piece-by-piece. Each one is then carefully labeled, and the point where it touches another stick or the armature is tabbed and numbered. Each piece is recreated in bronze, and the whole sculpture is then reassembled and welded together. “It takes about 20 people three months to build one of the big ones,” Deborah explains. “The guys who do the tooling and welding are amazing artists.” The results are breathtaking. The sculpture has the organic look and feel of wood, but the bronze gives it a durability that wood simply doesn’t have. “Putting the final piece together is the most fun. Working with talented people is so much fun – it’s like going to a dance hall and dancing with a bunch of different people who really know how to dance. That unspoken communication is so nice,” Deborah says with obvious pride. It may take close to an army of artisans to complete a Butterfield project – some of her bronze horses weigh more than a ton when they are finished – but it is her unrelenting passion, attention to detail and unique aesthetic that give her sculptures their souls.
By design, Butterfield’s horses are gentle creatures. As a young artist struggling to find her voice, two things greatly influenced the course of her artistic career: the Vietnam War and her mentor, renowned sculptor Manuel Neri. She studied with Neri at the University of California, Davis, and was one of his teaching assistants. “He was a mentor in a sense that his work was such a tremendous example for me and one of the reasons I’m doing horses,” she explains. “I wanted to create art about myself, but why would I want to do female nudes? If I did a female nude, I would do it like Manuel does. I knew I couldn’t improve on it. I had to find something else.” At the time, Deborah was given the chance to live on a thoroughbred farm, rent free, in exchange for taking care of the horses. For a starving student it was an offer she couldn’t refuse. “I had been teased for drawing horses my whole life so I had sworn them off, but then there I was right back into it. At first I made ceramic saddles – you know, kind of implying the relationship between horse and rider. Then I did some other animals before I got brave and did my first horses. They were big plaster mares that were naturalistic looking.” Her work would evolve from there.
There was something else going on as well. It was the early 1970’s, and the country was mired in the Vietnam War. Deborah, like so many of her generation, was horrified by the death and destruction. “I was going knocking on doors trying to influence people (about the war), and that wasn’t working and I felt the only place that I was competent was in the studio. I had to figure out some way to make a statement.” She did it by sculpting pregnant mares, calling them “anti-war horses.” Unlike the horse’s traditional spot in history – taking soldiers off to war – Butterfield’s horses were and have remained as far from violent as possible. “Early on I only created mares because I thought of them as self portraits. Of my own horses, my favorites are mares. I just get along with them better.” But these days she is finding room for a stallion or two, as well.
“I love him,” she says standing in front of an enormous multi-colored steel stallion dominating one section of her studio. He is made of different pieces of found steel assembled as only Deborah Butterfield can. A red rump, a yellow snout, blue neck and a gas tank for a body, and somehow it works. Part of Butterfield’s genius is in creating something contemporary and abstract but never losing sight of her subject. Her horses, no matter what they are made of, look like horses! She can’t explain how she knows where and why one piece of metal will work over another. She just knows it is her dual reality – art and horses. “I usually don’t put the neck and head on until the very end, so in many ways, I’m really working with an abstract painting. It doesn’t become personified until the very end. It takes on a personality gradually.”
Butterfield likes to work big. She creates horses in all sizes, but it is the monumental bronzes and steel structures that seem to capture her imagination the most. It’s probably a good thing she ended up in Montana where there is lots of space. She and her husband, artist John Buck, live on a 350-acre ranch just a few miles outside of Bozeman. Deborah and John met and fell in love at UC, Davis. Teaching jobs brought them to Montana, and Deborah felt at home almost immediately. They bought a small piece of property, and over the years have bought up adjoining acres as they came on the market. Today their spread is a horse lover’s paradise and an artist’s haven. The house sits up on the hill about a half-mile from the main complex. It is a comfortable, eclectic home that mirrors the quirks and passions of its owners. John’s collection of kitschy Montana landscapes shares wall space with a couple of remarkable Roy DeForest canvases. A moose head is mounted over the stone fireplace, a full sized stuffed white elk (it’s supposed to be sacred) stands guard in the bedroom and a giant ceramic head done by the late Bay Area artist Bob Arneson sits halfway between the house and the trout pond.
The stables, of course, are not far away. They are large enough to handle more than two dozen horses. A regulation dressage court sits idle, covered with a thin blanket of snow – the horses and riders have moved inside for the winter. A beautiful indoor arena allows for riding all year round and wide-open meadows afford the horses room to run and roam. As she walks through the sprawling complex Deborah stops to nuzzle with the horses, chat with a boarder about a mare’s leg injury and encourage a rider trying to work a particularly difficult horse. She points out the newest members of the ranch’s animal menagerie – Puss and Boots are two orphaned kittens found in the barn at just a few weeks old. “They were so wild,” says Deborah. “I never thought we would tame them, but my assistant’s eight year old daughter is training them, and I think she is doing a good job. She named them. I probably would have chosen different names, but she’s the trainer.” This is Deborah Butterfield’s world – a working horse ranch that requires a massive amount of time and attention. The fact that she also fits in a full time art career is impressive.
Deborah has two studios – a smaller one close to the horses and a bigger one around back and away from the “equestrian distractions.” For twenty-five years Deborah has practiced the art of dressage, a type of riding where the rider and horse perform movements best compared to ballet. It requires technical skill and a deep connection between horse and rider. Deborah tries to ride every day, but admits she sometimes struggles to find enough time for both her horses and her art. Still, she knows the two are intimately connected. “Riding has helped me with my art,” she explains. “The discipline involved, and the clarity involved when you are trying to convey an idea. There is a lot of repetition involved, and the ideas have to be clearly represented. I think that’s what keeps it real for me. There really is this analogy with the daily interaction with horses. This isn’t a let’s go have fun thing. It’s work that we do together. It’s real. So is my art.” And it’s hard, physical, backbreaking work that requires all of Deborah’s strength, and then some. Her large warehouse studio is filled with heavy machinery and piles of scrap metal (larger ones are outside) that she calls her palette. Her favorite tool is a modified log splitter that she has nicknamed “Snippy.” “I used to use a cutting torch, but it was so wasteful and polluting, I wanted something else. I found the answer at a junkyard in Billings,” she laughs, knowing she is about to reveal perhaps her geekier side. “Honestly, I had heart palpitations when I saw this machine. The thing could take a twenty-foot gas tank, bite into the end of it and pick it up like it was nothing. It could take a big I-beam and just crunch it like a carrot stick. I see this and I’m getting more and more excited. But they are so expensive; the big ones are about a half million bucks. My baby one was 25-thousand so you can imagine this other thing was ten times bigger. But for me the little one works. It doesn’t wreck the paint like a cutting torch does. It kind of crushes and tears the metal, creating beautiful lines like torn wax, and I like that. But I can’t mangle the really big stuff. If I had my choice, I would have the big monster machine.”
Deborah Butterfield is tough. She always has been. As a young girl growing up in Southern California she was a tomboy who loved everything about horses, and not much has changed. Even as she approaches 60 years old she is still a tomboy. She likes her machines, her blowtorch, her favorite hammer, nicknamed “Big Red,” even though the red paint has long since rubbed off, and she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She and her assistant spend endless hours in a studio that can get pretty chilly during the Montana winters. Patio heaters, common in places like California, are scattered throughout the warehouse, and some puny overhead contraptions throw out a little bit of heat, but for the most part, the studio is cold and damp. On the flip side, summer can be insanely hot – this year temperatures topped 110 degrees. But regardless of the conditions, this is where Deborah chooses to spend her time and creative energy. Give her a power tool and a hammer, and she’s happy.
But there is also a soft side to the artist. Every year she puts on a benefit for a local therapeutic riding organization for developmentally disabled children. “It would probably be easier to just write a check,” she says, “but it’s about more than that. It’s a community event that brings a lot of people together.” Deborah herself has been involved for several years and says it’s one of the most rewarding things she does. “It’s really something. It’s pretty profound. I kind of specialize in kids with head injuries and cerebral palsy. At first I thought I would see a difference in maybe six weeks, but I saw a difference in twenty minutes. All of my horses have been really good with the kids. They totally know. This one horse, Rex, was amazing with the kids, and then I’d go to ride him and he would give me all kinds of trouble. He just wanted me to know – it was his choice.”
Deborah and her husband are empty nesters now. Both sons are in college, and both show signs of pursuing artistic careers. Deborah is obviously proud but also knows that an art career is something of a crapshoot. In her words, she has been “incredibly fortunate,” but she knows there are no guarantees. Deborah and her husband have successfully juggled two art careers, but it hasn’t always been easy. Although she is the better known of the two, she speaks of her husband’s work with tremendous respect and pride. “He had this beautiful museum show in Oregon. It was the most beautiful show I have ever seen. The wood block prints, the sculpture, everything led into the other and it was so beautifully displayed. It was just amazing. I was really humbled. My art is easier to understand. It’s a more accessible image.” And for that she makes no apologies. Several decades ago she made the critical decision to follow her heart, and she has never strayed from her artistic path. “When I started to do the horses I felt it was the first time I had been truly honest with myself. People ask me if it’s a formula? Well, is a prayer a formula? Do you get a new husband every year? If your horse breaks do you just throw it away and get another one? No, it’s about finding renewal in a continuing relationship. That’s what’s really important.” On that simple philosophy Deborah Butterfield has built her life and career. She sends her horses out into the world as something of goodwill ambassadors – lasting testaments to a woman who honored her heart.
Written by Erin Clark