Deborah Butterfield

(b. 1949)

About The Artist

One of the rare artists who seems to find endlessly fresh variations on a single subject, Deborah Butterfield has exclusively executed sculptures of horses for over forty years. In what Butterfield often cites as the predestination of her career, the artist was born on May 9th, 1949 — the same day as the 75th annual Kentucky Derby. Noting that she has loved horses since she "was old enough to think," Butterfield expressed an early interest in becoming a veterinarian. However, upon realizing that she could never bring herself to put an animal to sleep, Butterfield turned to art.

Butterfield received her BA from the University of California, Davis in 1972, as well as her MFA in 1973. She first garnered major critical attention when her work was featured in the 1979 Whitney Biennial, and, by the late 1990s she had received honorary doctorates of Fine Arts from both Rocky Mountain College in Billings and Montana State University in Bozeman. Though professionally Butterfield has devoted herself to visual art, she has explored her passion for horses in many ways. She currently lives on a ranch in Montana with husband and fellow artist John Buck, and has even pursued competitive dressage.

While still in graduate school, Butterfield sought to articulate the feminist themes of her moment but conceded that her professor Manuel Neri, and many others, had "already done what [she] would have done with the female form." It was then that her equine tendencies offered a poetic alternative — she began to reflect on representations of the horse in Western Art, and was disturbed by the consistent pairing of the animal’s valent inner qualities with messages of conquest and male aggression. In what Butterfield has referred to as "a very personal feminist statement," she began to craft an alternative visual narrative in which a mare’s strength and force worked in harmony with her role as a creator and nourisher of life. Butterfield 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 steeds.

Beginning with painted plaster and moving to mud and sticks, then onto scrap metal and in more recent years, bronze-cast wood, Butterfield’s material transformations have reflected her evolving sense of self. She has used organic matter to emphasize both grounding and ephemerality, as well more "sinister" textures, salvaged from her "pile of junk." In the early 1980s, the artist turned away from natural substances and instead began assembling found objects and discarded industrial waste. These materials simultaneously addressed the horse’s increasing irrelevance in the face of modern technology and the rise of ‘disposability’ culture in America.

Shifting mediums opened Butterfield’s work to more visual diversity and spontaneity. The artist has said that it was "next to impossible" to find the precise shapes and contours she would imagine when charting a work. In turn, she learned to recognize "a quality of line" and how to improvisationally integrate it into her compositions. 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."

Butterfield’s works are currently held in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Seattle Art Museum, among many others.

Butterfield, Deborah, and Vicki Kopf. Deborah Butterfield: Artist-in-Residence Program Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation: 25 February-17 April, 1983. Southeastern Center for Contemporary , 1983.

Gauss, Daniel. "New Sculptures by Deborah Butterfield at Danese / Corey." Arte Fuse, 18 Sept. 2014,

"Short Takes." Woman's Art Journal, vol. 21, no. 1, 2000, pp. 62.

"The World of Deborah Butterfield." Scholastic Art, vol. 33, no. 6, Apr, 2003, pp. 2-3.

Various Authors. "Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Works of Art." An Uncommon Vision: The Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines Art Center, 1998, p. 69.