Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

State of their art November 24, 2009 by Marjorie Smith • Published 11/24/09

From a corner in Gallatin County, artists Deborah Butterfield and John Buck have sculpted an international reputation
Photo by Kelly GorhamDeborah Butterfield
Photo by Kelly Gorham
Quieter than ghosts and as well trained as circus ponies, the horses have infiltrated the art museums of the world. The most casual connoisseur of contemporary sculpture can identify one at a glance: "Ah, yes, that's one of those Deborah Butterfield horses."

Beyond the heady world of galleries and museums, they speak even to those who say they are not interested in art. Leaving the Portland International Airport or visiting the Kansas City Zoo, people encounter the creations of bronze and recognize them instantly. Though they appear to be made of sticks and straw or parts of old machines rather than flesh and sinew, there is no question. These are horses.

Pulitzer-prize winning author Jane Smiley, a horsewoman herself, has written, "I have never met a horse lover who did not gasp at the truth of Butterfield's horses, and then again at the paradox that they are made of such industrial materials, barbed wire, bronze, pieces of junked cars, discarded metal letters."

Butterfield and her artist husband, John Buck, have been creating such magic a few miles outside of Bozeman for 30 years, ever since Montana State University's Department of Art expanded its sculpture staff from one professor to two and hired Buck to fill the second slot. Butterfield, then teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, followed her husband (they met while both were graduate students at the University of California Davis) to Bozeman and also joined the faculty. Buck taught at MSU from 1976-1983. She taught at MSU part-time beginning in 1977. They split a position from 1980-1983 then both taught as part-time adjuncts until 1987. Yet, their connection to the university and to Bozeman's greater art community has spanned decades.

"Of course they are both recognized on the national art scene but they have been very generous on the local scene," says Ray Campeau, retired Bozeman High School art teacher and 1987 recipient of the Montana Governor's Award for the Arts. "They got involved from the time they first arrived."

While the couple also lives and works part of the year in Hawaii, they say they are rooted in Bozeman, a location that affects their work.

"It influenced my choices of materials," Butterfield offers.

"It's provided subject matter," Buck says. "But the big benefit has always been time and space. We couldn't afford this much studio space in an urban center, and there would be so many demands on our time."

Butterfield adds, "Certainly the scale of the landscape has influenced me. The Big Sky thing is true!"

Her husband agrees.

'I have never met a horse lover who did not gasp at the truth of Butterfield's horses, and then again at the paradox that they are made of such industrial materials.'

-Wrote Jane Smiley about Debora Butterfield
"And why would we want to go anywhere else? When we had other offers, we realized we would still have to travel a lot for our art business. And you can travel from Bozeman."

The couple continues to be a resource to MSU. They frequently speak to students, invite art and photography students for tours of their studios, and hire MSU art grads for their staff. Guy Klaas, a former student of Buck and Butterfield who graduated in 1982 with an MFA in sculpture, has been employed with Buck and Butterfield for more than 25 years. He works mostly as a full-time assistant to Buck. But, reports administrative assistant Dawn Ahlert, he "does a million other jobs here." Ahlert herself came to Montana for grad school and received an MFA in painting from MSU in 2000.

"I got my dream job working with John and Debby," she said. "I consider myself very fortunate to be able to work in the fine art/contemporary art world. It's a bonus to live in such a beautiful place as Bozeman and work for such gifted artists."

Photo by Kelly GorhamJohn Buck
Photo by Kelly Gorham

Buck and Butterfield say that they enjoyed teaching but not the administrative responsibilities that came with the job. "Basically, we left MSU when we had kids (Wilder, now 25, and Hunter, 22)," Butterfield says. "You can teach and have kids, or have kids and a career as an artist, but you can't do all three."

And it was clear early on that both Buck and Butterfield were on track to become world-class artists. Now, their work is represented in museums ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. as well as the Yellowstone Art Museum of Billings. Both have books written about them: John Buck: Iconography was published in 2008 with an accompanying major traveling 
exhibition. Deborah Butterfield is now in its third printing and will be re-released in the spring with additional photographs.

While at first glance Butterfield's subjects appear obvious, Buck's work seems more complex. His woodblock prints are gigantic, typically at least three by five feet. This scale required development of a special print making process in which the wooden blocks are fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle after being shipped to his print maker in Colorado.

The prints often feature a large central image while the background is filled with commentary made up of rows and rows of images, almost like a graphic novel. According to art critic and editor Eleanor Heartney in an essay included in John Buck: Iconography, Buck's work reveals that he "knows the contradictory nature of American politics, the majesty and vulnerability of the natural landscape, the power of symbols and the enduring pull of national mythology."

In recent years Buck has begun to have the wooden elements in his sculptures cast in bronze, just as years ago Butterfield devised a way to solidify her horses -- originally built of sticks, straw and mud -- by casting the pieces in bronze.

Human beings in Buck's work are often represented by the sort of stylized figure one sees on crosswalk signs, something to make a viewer stop to consider humanity's place in the world.

"I'm using those figures to expand on the traditional approach to figurative art," he said.

He muses about his creative process. "I keep collecting my own stuff. I make a part, it doesn't work where I thought I'd use it, so I save it and later find a place for it in a new piece." He is thoughtful for a moment. "Debby finds what she makes. I make what I find."

What Butterfield has found are horses. Asked which came first in her life -- art or horses -- she does not hesitate.

"Horses. I was born on the day of the Kentucky Derby in 1949 and my first memories are of horses. Art became the way I could talk about my experience. If I were a writer, I'd use words, but I'm not."

"You live in the moment with a horse," she explains. "You start anew with horses every day. You can't assume much. Each day is a new experience. That's one thing I try to communicate. Yet my work isn't really about horses. It's my report on my interaction with my materials."

Others agree with her.

"Clearly her sculptures are about something larger than horses, which are both the subject and a way of posing questions about existence," wrote contemporary art critic John Yau. "No longer seen as an animal to be used, her horses become the other, the presence that causes us to reflect upon our lives."

When Butterfield isn't making horses, she's often working with the animals. There are always many horses on the Cottonwood Road property where she boards 15 horses in addition to her 10 horses.

Their property also has a very large structure that contains a regulation-size dressage court -- 60 by 20 meters. Decades ago Butterfield took up dressage, which might be called a form of dance involving a human and a horse. As Jane Smiley noted, dressage represents a contrast to Butterfield's approach to art. In art she has always relied on going her own way, regardless of advice from professors and mentors. Dressage, on the other hand, demands strict adherence to formal standards that evolved from the discipline's origins with European cavalry officers, yet also demands "feel and empathy," she says.

An understanding of that mystical horse-ness of Butterfield's sculptures begins with a tour of what she calls her "bone yard." Slabs and fragments of steel, pieces of defunct machines and old advertising signs fill one corner of a field. Each piece has been saved because, at least for a moment, it looked as if it might be part of a future Deborah Butterfield horse. When she is ready to start a new work, she'll go to the bone yard to find the parts for the particular animal she's decided to create.

'I keep collecting my own stuff. I make a part, it doesn't work where I thought I'd use it, so I save it and later find a place for it in a new piece. Debby finds what she makes. I make what I find.

-John Buck
Butterfield next leads a visitor to her huge studio where cranes and winches, chains on rolling tracks and well-practiced assistants help her create the massive sculptures that have made her famous. "It's like a nomadic camp," she says."Everything can be put where it is needed."

Then finally she displays her naked passion for her subject when she takes her visitor to see Liliuokolani, a four-week-old bay foal, born prematurely to a surrogate mother. Butterfield explains that she had an embryo transplanted from a beloved horse named Isabelle who is too old to have another foal.

"We have to be very careful and not let her damage her joints," Butterfield explains, adding that the foal's bones aren't yet set. "She would like to escape and frolic in the pasture but we're waiting until her bones can take it."

The woman is visibly moved almost to tears, her delight in the little creature almost palpable. She struggles to put her feelings into words. "I feel like -- like a grandmother," she says.

Horses such as the foal remain essential to Butterfield. She has been making horses for 30 years. Other artists might find that confining, but Butterfield doesn't see it that way.

"I won't care if people get tired of my making horses -- I'll still make them," she insists. "It's what I do."

Photo courtesy of Deborah ButterfieldPhoto courtesy of Deborah Butterfield