Of Horse, Of Self

Deborah Butterfield's Equine Sculpture

Deborah Butterfield, photo courtesy Town Hall Seattle

Endlessly finding fresh variations on a single subject, Deborah Butterfield has exclusively created sculptures of horses for more than forty years. In what Butterfield often cites as the predetermining factor of her career, she was born on May 9, 1949 – the same day as the 75th annual Kentucky Derby. Noting that she has had a passion for horses since she “was old enough to think,” Butterfield expressed an early interest in becoming a veterinarian. However, upon the realizing that she could never bring herself to put an animal to sleep, Butterfield decided to pursue art instead.

While in graduate school at the University of California, Davis, she sought to articulate feminist themes in her sculpture, but conceded that her professor Manuel Neri, among others, had “already done what [she] would have done with the female form.” It was then that her long held obsession with horses offered an alternative subject matter. Recalling that the horse has long served as a symbol of determination, resolve, and freedom within Western art, Butterfield observed that the animal’s inner qualities were often situated in scenes of male aggression, and used as supporting devices for messages of conquest and manifest destiny.

The artist thus sought to craft an alternative visual narrative in which a mare’s strength and force, equivalent to that of a stallion, worked in harmony with her role as a creator and nourisher of life. Butterfield asserts that “it was a very personal feminist statement.” She found that she could examine her own identity by “crawling” into a different “creature’s shape,” and perceiving “the world in a different way.” At this more comfortable theoretical distance, she could then execute metaphorical self-portraits through her subjects.

Beginning with plaster, as in this work created circa 1975, Butterfield would go on to alternate mediums, moving from mud and sticks, to scrap metal, and, in more recent years, bronze-cast wood. These material transformations have followed Butterfield’s evolving sense of self. She has used organic matter that emphasizes both grounding and ephemerality, as well more “sinister” textures salvaged from her “pile of junk."

Always seeking to coax out the personality of the horses she depicts, Butterfield has established a system of building up her forms from within to reveal a gestural interior space. She has said that in this way, “action becomes anticipated rather than captured,” and each horse introduces itself to the viewer with a “specific energy at a precise moment.”