Deborah Butterfield, “Vermillion”

Deborah Butterfield, “Vermillion”

  • <p>Deborah Butterfield, Vermillion, 1989. Photo by Christina Murrey.</p>
  • Press play to listen to the audio guide.

Deborah Butterfield, Vermillion, 1989.

American, born 1949

Art and equestrian pursuits have preoccupied Deborah Butterfield since her childhood in Southern California, where she made drawings of the horses she rode. Though she originally intended to study veterinary medicine, she shifted her focus to the arts, studying ceramics in the early 1970s at the University of California, Davis. But after renting a small horse farm, she began making life-sized sculptures of animals—first reindeer, then horses. Throughout the history of art, depictions of horses have appeared primarily in scenes related to either war and conflict or racing and sport. Statues of military and political leaders on horseback appeared in Ancient Greece as early as the sixth century BCE, and were especially common throughout the Renaissance in Europe, when, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, monumental equestrian statues were erected in prominent public places throughout France and Italy.

Since moving to a ranch in Montana in the mid-1970s, the horse has been Butterfield’s primary sculptural subject. Unlike earlier triumphalist renderings, she asserts the grace and poise of the equestrian form. Her sculptures diverge from traditional depictions of racing or rearing horses, which often symbolize aggression and competition. Instead, they evoke a sense of tranquility, showing horses in peaceful and natural poses as they stand, graze, contemplate, and rest. Though she initially sculpted in a realist style, Butterfield switched to using natural materials like mud, sticks, and straw.

In 1980, she experimented with scrap metal: cutting, tearing, bending, denting, hammering, and welding the material. This approach allowed her to depict the intricate anatomical details of living horses with remarkable accuracy. Despite a high degree of abstraction, the sheets of painted, rusted, and welded steel that comprise Vermillion capture the mass and musculature of the animal. Through her decades of training in dressage, Butterfield is attuned not only to the bodies and motions of her horses but also to the materials she uses to represent them. “Different kinds of metal are like different breeds of horses,” she says. “Steel reminds me of Thoroughbreds, for example. Each type has its own tensile strength and its own properties.”

  • <p>Deborah Butterfield, Vermillion, 1989. Photo by Ben Aqua.</p>

Location: POB Atrium

GPS: 30.286674,-97.736785