Finding strength in vulnerability

Big Sky to host state’s first outdoor sculpture by renowned Montana artist

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BOZEMAN – When Montana artist Deborah Butterfield began sculpting horses in the early ‘70s she approached them as self-portraits.

The first living horse Butterfield acquired was an ex-race horse, a mare named Burlap, through whom Butterfield was able to gain access to her own assertiveness, then her vulnerability, until coming full circle back into strength. “She always had to be first, her nose just a bit ahead of the others,” said Butterfield, who identified with the animal. “But it was 1971, the hippie years, and everybody was trying to be equal. I hadn’t given myself permission to be competitive.”

Butterfield decided to make her first horse sculpture of Burlap, working then in mud and sticks, and discovered the connection ran even deeper.

Using her arms to measure the animal, she found that they shared the same proportions.

“If I were a horse I would’ve been that size,” she said. “So I did feel I was portraying myself through another creature … a metaphorical substitute.”

For years she created vague, naturalistic mares, an antidote to the war horses and stallions symbolic of masculine power, especially relevant in the context of the Vietnam War.

Portraying horses in repose, exhibiting a passivity associated with the feminine, Butterfield moved through her discomfort with vulnerability to the realization that true strength lies in one’s ability to express it. “If I am this horse, I am like a naked woman model,” Butterfield said. “In revealing my vulnerability I am showing my strength.”

Then, almost in response to the softness of her own work, her horse sculptures took on the angles and spikiness of the sticks, the industrial hardness of reclaimed metal, and started to move in the direction of the stripped down, skeletal horses she makes today, where the negative space is as definitive of the form as its tangible structure.

Today, Butterfield spends the warmer months on her rural 400-acre farm northeast of Bozeman, and winters on Hawaii’s Big Island, an arrangement that began more than a decade after she moved to Montana in the mid-‘70s with her husband, fellow artist John Buck.

Butterfield has about 30 horses—some her own, most she boards—on the property, which is peppered with barns and warehouses; an artfully organized scrap yard of mangled, rusty steel; and backed by glowing green hills where she grows her own hay. She rides daily.

Outside a massive indoor riding arena are two of Butterfield’s larger-than-life horse sculptures. One is reclined and the other stands upright, in a style similar to the sculpture that will become the focal point of Big Sky’s Town Center Plaza when installed this September.

They appear to be made of gracefully arranged pieces of the spindly driftwood they began as, but are in fact bronze and weigh 2,600 and 1,900 pounds, respectively. The wood turns to ash during the casting process, leading Butterfield to refer to the original wooden sculptures as “ghosts.”

Butterfield’s 2016 cast bronze sculpture “Big Piney” demonstrates the artist’s ability to capture the essence of a horse with a bare bones aesthetic. PHOTO COURTESY OF SCULPTURE MILWAUKEE

“Horses are spiritual pack animals for us,” she said. “They seem to know what we need and help us get from one point to the other, both spiritually and metaphorically. … [Horses] have a lot of do with death and fragility and impermanence. You can wrap them in pillows as much as you can, but life and death intervene.”

There may be a hint of the funereal about Butterfield’s horses, but their aliveness is what comes to the forefront, conveyed through an intuitively achieved perfection of form, the dip of a neck, tilt of a head, the use of a single twig or scrap of metal to bring it to completion.

“It’s almost like picking out a melody,” Butterfield said, surveying the bundles of sticks she’s gathered along the rivers of southwest Montana, weathered wood from Hawaii’s native Ohai trees, and hardened tubes of Icelandic bullwhip kelp.

She’s intrigued by the history of each piece—was it harvested or manipulated by man? Has it been ravaged by water or wind? To Butterfield, these are narratives inherent to their molecular structure.

Nearing 70, Butterfield carries herself as gracefully as the animals so central to her life, almost as if they are portraying themselves through her now, rather than vice versa.

“There has got to be something subliminal, primal about it, maybe it’s even in our DNA,” Butterfield said, referencing the widely held attraction to horses. “You have to be your best self with them because they reflect where you’re at. … Maybe that’s why I like being around them—they keep me on the straight and narrow.”

Butterfield hands her wooden sculptures over to a foundry in Walla Walla, Washington—the current location of the Big Sky sculpture—for the three-month casting process, so although the end result is cool, heavy and unyielding, for Butterfield, her artistic process remains highly organic.

“My work has very much to do with hunting and gathering,” she said. “It’s almost more about trees now than horses … I’ve become a serious tree hugger.”

Although Butterfield’s work can be found in some of the most prominent museums and galleries in the world, the piece for Big Sky’s Town Center Plaza will be her first sculpture to find an outdoor home in Montana. Handmade from wood gathered from the banks of the Gallatin, Yellowstone and Madison rivers, it will weigh more than 2,000 pounds.

Funding for the sculpture was raised by the Arts Council of Big Sky, in a campaign spearheaded by one of Butterfield’s champions, Big Sky resident Patty Rhea, who attended the artist’s first solo show in Chicago in 1976.

Visit bigskyarts.org for more information.