Deborah Kay Butterfield is an American sculptor, most notably of horses constructed from wood and scrap metal. Born in 1949 on the day of the 75th Kentucky Derby, Butterfield claims her auspicious birthdate has in part inspired her chosen subject matter. She earned her Bachelor’s and MFA degrees from the University of California, Davis, where she met her husband, artist John Buck.
Butterfield’s earliest works date to the mid 1970s, and were fashioned from natural materials such as sticks, mud, and clay gathered on her Montana property. In 1979, she began using found steel and other scrap metal to build her horses, and in the early 1980s she began casting horses in bronze. She continues to create bronze casts of downed tree limbs and other found wood scraps, which burn away during the casting process.
Butterfield asserts that she fashions her horse sculptures as a “metaphorical substitute” for herself, as a sort of indirect self-portrait. She has also pointed out that many of her horses are depicted at rest or otherwise in a state of calm, in contrast to the warhorses which have dominated equestrian sculpture historically.
New York Times art critic Grace Glueck aptly summarized the artist’s practice in her 2004 article: “By now Deborah Butterfield’s skeletal horses, fashioned of found wood, metal and other detritus, are familiar to almost a generation of gallery goers. Yet they still have a freshness, which comes from the artist’s regard for them as individuals. In fact, training, riding, and bonding with horses, as she does at her Montana ranch, she thinks of them as personifications of herself…They seem to express the very spirit of equine existence.”
Butterfield currently works both on her farm in Bozeman, Montana and in her Hawaii studio. Her work has been widely exhibited and acclaimed, and is now coveted by collectors of contemporary art. Butterfield’s horse sculptures reside in museums and galleries in cities around the United States, including in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.