Horse sense

Deborah Butterfield: Horses

Deborah Butterfield touches the neck of “Hawaii,” created largely from wood collected from beaches there. Her sculptures are images of both strength and fragility.

Deborah Butterfield touches the neck of “Hawaii,” created largely from wood collected from beaches there. Her sculptures are images of both strength and fragility.

Photo By David Robert

Deborah Butterfield stands in a gallery surrounded by her horses. Her face lights up as she describes each one. She talks about them like old family members, and in a way, they are.

“Isbelle looks so nice in that light,” she says, gesturing toward a horse sculpture made of wood and cast in bronze.

The horse has been the sole subject of Butterfield’s work for the past 34 years. Born in 1949 on the day of the Kentucky Derby, Butterfield owns 10 live horses and boards another 15 at her home in Montana.

She’s dressed all in black, her straw-colored hair cropped into bangs at her forehead, her skin lightly tan with the appearance of being no stranger to the outdoors. Her look is kind, but no-nonsense, somewhat like these tranquil animals around her, which are fashioned largely from steel.

“I’m still learning what the horses have to teach me,” she says, standing before “Palma,” named after her mother-in-law and pieced together out of a John Deere tractor, blue Ford and other found metal objects. “It’s real life. It’s not fantasy. To me, they’re my symbol of the most precious, fragile thing. … I’ve always used the horse as a symbol of death and rebirth.”

Fourteen of her works—from smaller, table-top horses to immense sculptures of wood, plant material and scrap metal—are on exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art.

One can’t help but be drawn in by the towering horses, with their graceful lines and captivating dimensions of up to 8.5 feet high and 10.5 feet long. To stand next to one is to reclaim a childhood sense of vertigo and smallness. The viewer’s neck arches slowly upward, eyes wide in wonder.

Some of her horses appear made of driftwood, which seems destined to disintegrate. But Butterfield cast each stick in bronze at a foundry in Walla Walla, Wash., and reassembled the horse. She then applied a patina, which makes the bronze unidentifiable. The process preserves the horse and allows it to be placed outside without concern for the weather, just as Butterfield’s horse sculpture has long stood in front of the museum.

Her more industrial pieces are made of everything from farm equipment to loading dock scrap metal. Stair treads make up the belly, collar and hip of one horse. “Rondo” is welded from American steel taken from old cars. In another, rusty metal blends with chipped white paint to give the color of a palomino.

One could say Butterfield’s transition from natural wood to scrap metal illustrates the horses’ transition from wild beings to industrial animals used largely for warfare. Despite her love of horses, Butterfield compares them to the nuclear bomb. “Once the culture got horses, the whole world changed,” she says. “If you had a horse with a bad foot, you lost the war.”

But there’s another reason she started using metal: Butterfield got bored. She found welding and banging on steel more interesting than collecting and assembling driftwood.

You won’t find any horses in war poses in this exhibit. Their necks are all softly bent. One imagines them in a field, flicking their tails at an occasional fly, quietly munching on hay. And yet, they are wrought of metal, speaking to their capacity for strength and even danger.

“Even the gentlest horse can kill you,” says Butterfield. “There’s an awe and respect there. It’s a fierce love; it’s not a cute love.”