Bronze Mettle

 She has sculpted for more than 40 years, has pieces in 86 public collections, and has been part of 327 group and solo exhibitions. Whew! Deborah Butterfield touts an impressive resume, but in Colorado she conquers when it comes to numbers. With 15 life-size sculptures weighing a ton apiece, “The Nature of Horses” at Denver Botanic Gardens is Butterfield’s largest exhibit yet. Saddle up as she shares with Modern In Denver the art of her equine relationship, the architecture of the exhibit, and her story of love, life, death, and grief. 


WORDS: Amy Phare IMAGES: Scott Dressel-Martin

When Deborah Butterfield paused from working on “The Nature of Horses” installation, we didn’t expect to talk about death, prayer, or bulldozers—let alone negotiations with chickens. But that’s the thing about Butterfield. Akin to her bronze, life-size sculptures, her depth extends far beneath the rich patina. Within minutes: stories of miles traveled, decades of deep-rooted relationships (with the horses, of course), and insight into her unbridled obsession. No small talk. Just wisdom, life, and that undying passion.

It’s what pulls you into her work—and what needs to be experienced first-hand by Coloradans at her Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) exhibit through October 18. “It’s one thing to look at artwork—especially a digital representation of an art object that is meant to be experienced in person. To see just one representation of the horses, it’s like you’re only getting a sliver of what that artwork is about.

Move around to experience that 360 degree view as much as you can,” said Lisa Eldred, DBG Director of Exhibition, Art, and Interpretation. Adding to Butterfield’s talent is that she doesn’t use any preparatory sketches; she “draws” her horse sculptures with the wood in three dimensions. “I was so struck upon receiving all of them,” said Eldred. “It’s a celebration of the art form in and of itself, that 3D object.

At DBG, circumnavigate a Butterfield piece, and you’ll realize it’s more than a puzzle of sticks. Those materials have history. The sculpture, a story. That horse, it has a soul. And Butterfield wants you along for the ride. Read on as she tells the story—in her words.





DB portrait in Hawaii Feb 2015

I was born in the day of the Kentucky Derby when Ponder won, so I think it’s been my life question; I ponder horses. Even since before I could talk, it’s been the most important thing I’ve ever seen. I got my first horse in my 20s, and now I have 10 horses and three mules. My first horse sculpture was of my pregnant mare, and then my father died in 1977, and I did a piece about him: four big mud and stick pieces, which were set according to the points of the compass. In order to make the pieces, it was the coldest winter ever in Montana, with 3 feet of snow the whole time I was supposed to make it. I had to go to a nursery and use a pickaxe and get frozen dirt out of this pile, then go into the woods and break sticks out of trees, drag them out with my horse, put chains on my pick-up, and get them to my studio. It was 20 below for weeks, and I thought, this is about your dad, this is not supposed to be easy. Anyway, I had seen this book at the Art Institute of Chicago about a little Navajo girl being healed in a ceremony, and she’s sitting in the middle of this sand painting, and I thought I wanted to be her. I wanted to be healed after losing my dad.

That’s how we learn is through empathy and fitting ourselves into someone else’s perspective. For me, the work, aside from being formal constructivist sculpture, it’s also meditation and a devotion. It’s my way of prayer. As with real horses, and with loved ones, there’s always that prayer: Please stay. Please don’t go. They’re very much about death and grief, as well. Horses are kind of expendable in the biological scheme of things; they were prey animals. They are very fragile and often die. So going through this process of love and devotion and care and grief, especially if you’re doing sport with your horse, it’s like your partner. You train together and spend so much time together. If they die, it’s devastating. You cry maybe more over the horse, because you know eventually you can stop, and maybe with a person you can’t.

The metaphor of animals is connected with earth, and we’ve gotten away from that. They help us keep in touch with this world we’ve lost track of. Even 100 years ago, everyone had a horse or mule or chickens, and every day, you had to learn how to negotiate with them. You needed each other, and you established a relationship and accomplished things. Now, cars just do what we say; we’ve lost that two-way conversation. A lot of us miss that, and I do feel as though we’ve become very self-centered. I hope for people to stand next to these horses and find part of themselves that they haven’t been able to access for a long time—maybe not even in this life. I think people feel it. I recently got some mules, because they make me laugh, and horses can make you cry. They’re just so heartbreakingly beautiful and frail within their strength. They are a metaphor for me of what we’re here to do. They are so quiet and brave and reflect back upon us our attitudes and moods. I understand them by riding them and breathing with them and wrapping my legs around them and taking care of them when they’re injured or dying. It helps me stay in the moment and focused to be making art or to be with horses.

luna_001_2THE PROCESS
Emotionally, formally, the horse is also not a horse. The body shape is what I start with. I will weld the shape of the body, hang it up so it’s level, and weld the hips, shoulders, and legs down. It’s essentially a rectangular canvas with four legs. I weld sticks and get an abstract composition going, adding and subtracting quite a bit. I have acres of piles of wood and scrap metal at an amazing 90-foot by 120-foot studio. So much is about collecting materials, spreading them across the floor, and finding a theme. It’s almost like a melody. Sometimes the wood has holes in it or the graffiti of bark beetles. I collect wood and metal from all over the country, Iceland, Israel, and Hawaii. Everywhere I go, I ship wood home. They are weathered things that show what happened to them: fire, wind, a bulldozer, war. The matter of what I’m working with holds the emotion and the context of its history. Even though the horse’s main composition is very abstract, the material holds the memory, almost the DNA of what happened to it.


After the composition is really dynamic, I know who the horse is, and then I put on the neck and head, and then it becomes personified—it becomes a horse. The non-objective emotional composition of the body determines the personality; it defines the posture, which evokes the movement about to be enacted. They are quiet and still, but you feel in your body the anticipated movement. You internalize them, and they come out. I have under my care 28 horses and 18 boarders, so you get to know them. A lot of pieces are based on actual horses or friends’ horses. They are mostly named after towns in Montana or locations where I got the wood from. Sometimes I’ll meditate on the piece and try to find what it reminds me of, often times they are site names or creek or mountain names. They’re just portraits in the sense that it provides confirmation of a horse I’ve known; its volumes are familiar to me. It’s not so much anthropomorphic in a cutesy way, but in a way of recognition.


There’s a pressure with any sculpture between objects and walls, and if a piece is placed wrong, it’s deflated. However, if it is placed well within an architectural structural, there becomes this lively tension, much akin to riding a horse with positive tensions. There’s this dynamic energy that is rewarding for both of you. Working in the studio is much like working with a horse. So I was very frightened about how my work would look here [DBG]. They asked me to do it for quite a long time, and I just didn’t think we could get the work together, and if we could, that it would look terrible. But once we got the first one placed, my breath went away, and I thought it’s going to be really wonderful to do this. The challenge is getting to the site and trying to make that dynamic tension happen, making a composition and emotional energy happen. Since my wood comes from all kinds of trees and climate zones and cultural areas, there’s a wonderful analogy with a garden itself, and the idea of birth, life, and death—it’s the same with a garden. There are times when a garden is at its most lush, and is it more beautiful then or when it’s dead? I have such trepidation and anxiety, because a lot of my work’s strength is that you don’t expect to find a horse in a room or an art gallery. Real horses are breathing and full of life. For a sculpture to have that same power, they have to be exaggerated. They are larger so they can carry their own. Outside, I was afraid that they would just shrink. In this garden, there are still walls with trees and hedges, so there is still something for it to relate to. Some pieces have bronze sticks leaning on them and on the ground, so they carry their own context with them; they have their own relationship. I’ve spent so much time in woods gathering. How do you compete with nature? I wanted to bring that experience, because my horses really are a metaphor for the natural world.


I want visitors to crawl into the horses emotionally, look out through their point of view, and to experience that stillness. The reason we make art is so people can see things through another being’s eyes. Like a book, it’s so interesting to crawl into a character. I want people to look with their eyes, but also feel it through their skin and center. I think we always process things too intellectually, and on one level, I want them to experience it internally in their guts. It’s a horse, but then as you look at it, it could become an entire world. As you go inside, it’s no longer a horse—you’re in a forest or an atom. The scale disappears, and you can travel within it. All good art is that way. It makes everything else disappear for a while.


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What’s it like to place a 2,000-pound horse in the middle of a garden that doesn’t close during installation? Take a sneak peek at the art of the install in our online exclusive interview with Lisa Eldred, DBG Director of Exhibitions, Art, and Interpretation. In addition, you can learn more about the exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens; they have put together both outdoor and indoor programming all summer long to complement Deborah Butterfield’s work. From a group exhibit on textiles to a video to a family tour, there is plenty of supplemental education. Mark the calendar for August 5, when the artist herself shares the inspiration and approach to making her sculptures.

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