When Montana artist Deborah Butterfield creates a sculpture of a horse, she not only reveals her deep passion for the creature, but she confronts the darker side of life

When Montana artist Deborah Butterfield creates a sculpture of a horse, she not only reveals her deep passion for the creature, but she confronts the darker side of life.

"Horses die, and they break your heart, just like children do. The work is more about life and death, and about that full circle of life," Butterfield says.

Butterfield’s "Horses" — two standing and two reclining horses made from bronze and steel — is the featured exhibit at Friday’s opening of Mesa Contemporary Arts at the Mesa Arts Center.

Butterfield combs the woods and creek banks near her 500-acre ranch south of Missoula for scraps of wood, mud and debris. She scours junkyards and foundries, driving around the state for the right scrap metal to craft the horses for which she is famous.

Her work ranges from the lifelike ceramic horse sculptures she crafted in the early to mid-1970s to the more abstract forms of reclining and standing horses she sculpts from mud and sticks and weathered metal scraps.

Butterfield was born "on the day of the Kentucky Derby" in 1949 in San Diego. "Before I could talk, I would point at the horses at the little pony fairs they used to have in the early 1950s," she says.

Butterfield’s parents were too poor to buy a horse, but they arranged riding lessons for her around age 5. Horses and riding became Butterfield’s lifelong passion.

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from the University of California-Davis in 1972 and 1973.

She was reluctant to create horses at first, limiting herself to creating ceramic saddles that explored the space between horse and rider.

"Eventually, I just let myself do the horse," she says. "It was kind of a courageous thing to do . . . in a time when conceptual art was just happening, in 1972.

"I started out as a potter and have done a lot of ceramics, and I loved the idea of making something out of clay that wasn’t fired," she says. "So I mixed ground paper and mud and clay and plaster and glue and straw and dirt — all this stuff together — and just covered these big, naturalistic-looking horses with mud."

Butterfield has served as an assistant art professor at the University of Wisconsin (1975-77) and the University of Montana (1979-87). Her art rose to prominence through shows at the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in Chicago in 1977 and the OK Harris Gallery in New York in 1978.

"My work is horses, but essentially, the bodies are like these long rectangles that are suspended on legs. . . . I don’t add the head and neck until the very end, kind of long using either the crushed metal or the sticks in an abstract way," she says.

Butterfield married sculptor John Buck in 1974. The couple have two sons and divide their time between homes in Montana and Hawaii.

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