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Deborah Butterfield: Horses

September 17 - December 11, 2005


Deborah Butterfield: Horses features twelve evocative sculptures of horses in bronze, steel, and mixed media by the internationally acclaimed Montana sculptor. On view at the Norton Museum of Art from September 17 through December 11, 2005, most of the pieces are from Deborah Butterfield's personal collection and have rarely 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. Her early work, fragile 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, casting the finished sculpture in bronze. The intricate casting process involving twenty people takes two to three months for a large horse. A true lover of horses, Butterfield is an accomplished dressage rider. She owns twelve horses and rides daily when at home in Montana. (right: Deborah Butterfield, Ferdinand, 1990, found steel, 77 x 116 x 33 inches)


Artist Biography:

Deborah Butterfield is one of the world's leading sculptures 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, 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. 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. 

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 National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist 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 Award 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's casting process:

Butterfield assembles the original by fastening logs, branches, sticks, planks and boards onto an armature that gives the basic posture of the particular horse.  The piece is photographed from all sides and angles, particularly the areas where individual pieces are joined. These photographs are used to reconstruct the various elements after casting. A bronze casting of a wood stick is made by taking the natural wood and covering it with ceramic-shell molding material, which is capable of picking up exacting detail. The wood is completely burned away during firing. 

The kiln used to cure the ceramic is the "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 the kiln and fired to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the wax inside the ceramic shells, and the connecting gates, are melted away. (right: Deborah Butterfield, Palma, 1990, found steel, 77 x 119 x 26 inches)

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. 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. A combination of white pigment and chemicals is sprayed and brushed onto the heated bronze. 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 if it is bronze or wood.


Catalogue and DVD:

The exhibition is accompanied by the book Deborah Butterfield, which marks the first major academic survey of the artist's work and career. Authored by Robert Gordon and published by Henry N. Abrams, Inc. the book includes an introduction by Jane Smiley, an essay by John Yau, and poems by Vicki Hearne.

A 19-minute DVD entitled Deborah Butterfield: Dialogue with the Artist showing the artist at work in her Montana and Hawaii studios, and a step-by-step overview of the bronze casting process at the Walla Walla Foundry, will also be on view at the Norton. [1]


Exhibition Support:

Deborah Butterfield: Horses was organized by the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana. The exhibition and its national tour have been generously sponsored by The Meadowlark Fund; David Orser and Ossie Abrams; Dr. Don and Carol Roberts; Buchanan Capital LLC; Norma and Gary Buchanan; The Greg Kucera Gallery; The Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Inc.; Gallery Paule Anglim; L.A. Louver Gallery; Edward Thorp Gallery; and Robert and Jana Knight.


Editor's notes:

RL readers may also enjoy this article:

1. A related video is Deborah Butterfield: Horse in Wax.


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