Deborah Butterfield creates sculptures of horses. With each one she manages to convey a distinct presence, with a down-stretched head or paunchy girth. Yet her sculptures are stripped of all but the most basic anatomical characteristics. Some are life-size and made of discarded industrial materials. Others are smaller and made of mud and sticks. More recent ones are cast in bronze. Butterfield uses this mix of materials to explore her own fascination with horses, but she also uses the form of the horse as a vehicle to explore the human experience.
Butterfield was torn between pursuing art or veterinary medicine in college, but decided on the former and received a Master of Fine Arts Degree from the University of California at Davis in 1973. She bought her first horse and worked and lived on a thoroughbred farm, while still a student. In 1976 she moved to Montana to teach and started making horses out of natural materials. Using a wire armature, her horses became abstract sketches in mud and sticks.
Following in the twentieth-century tradition of assemblage art, Butterfield began working with found objects which she gathered at dumps and on her ranch. The sculptures are skeletal in construction or dense like Horse #2-85, composed of barbed wire, pipes, fencing, an old tire, and corroded scraps of metal and wood. Although the Museum's horse seems quiet and still, there is a great deal of movement in the combinations of materials, solids and voids, colors and textures. Patches of rust look like paint, and light plays over the beaten, corroded metal as it would over a twitching flank.
Horses have a long tradition as political and philosophical symbols in the history of art. Butterfield's horses counteract the Western tradition of masculine, military equestrian statues. Her horses are vulnerable and fragile rather than mighty. They are made of materials that continue to rust and decay. Butterfield's horses are stand-ins for us and pose pointed questions about our history rather than glorifying it. Art writers have interpreted these sculptures as new images of the American West, echoing ghost towns and junkyards in their materials, and reflecting changes in our way of life. Horses #2-85 incorporates a tire in its rump pointing out the replacement of the horse by the car and the changes to our environment in the process. Butterfield finds inspiration in the art of Africa and Asia, and most importantly in her experiences as a horsewoman.
Butterfield rides and trains horses for dressage, a discipline in which the horse and the rider work together to perform a specific set of tasks. She describes this process as a "kinetic language" and as her attempt to "try to communicate with another species." Butterfield continues to live on a ranch in Montana, dividing her time between her horses and sculpting.