Was I surprised when I spotted one of Deborah Kay Butterfield’s horses at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.!
The name of this horse, “Monekana,” means “Montana” in Hawaiian. Fragments of driftwood, actually Hawaiian Ohia wood, appear to be pieced together in her signature style, but the artist actually casts the pieces in bronze.
Art critic Robert Gordon describes how Butterfield colors the huge horses to make them look so lifelike: “To begin the coloring process, the artist heats the work to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. A combination of white pigment and chemicals is sprayed and brushed onto the heated bronze. In many cases, the viewers must touch the sculpture to see if it is bronze or wood.”
Beautifully alternating in dark and light shades of bronze, “Monekana” has a broad chest and muscular haunches that jump out at me, a life-long horse lover.
Montana artist Deborah Butterfield, born on the day of the Kentucky Derby in 1949, also adores horses. Her trompe l’oeil technique of assembling the bronze equine statue in such a manner that it appears to be equine flesh effectively illustrates her mastery of texture, shadow and skillful amalgamation of found objects into an expressive work of art.
According to the Arts.Observer.Com website, Butterfield states that “Monekana” is her most spiritual expression as a metaphor of human experience. Her equine skeletal creations, she says on the website, all represent personifications of herself.
“I was expressing my own feelings about myself, but in the shape of an animal,” says Butterfield, according to Kimberley Davis, who wrote a book about the artist called “Deborah Butterfield 9 April-9 May 2009.”
Characteristic of a resting horse in a grassy pasture, “Monekana” disengages his left hock, transferring about a ton of equine weight onto his right rear leg, opening up his jaws in a cavernous equine yawn. Measuring 96-by-129-by-63 inches, “Monekana” dwarfs me as I peer out from under his neck.
Ever since my 2007 Montana arrival and my encounter with Ms. Butterfield’s “Ferdinand,” the big red horse Butterfield created out of a salvaged billboard sign, I have wondered how she so realistically forms her horses’ legs, joints, heads, arched necks and tails. According to her website, she fills an entire barn with carefully collected wood fragments for her projects.
Art Professor James A. Baken of Rocky Mountain College says he has asked Ms. Butterfield, “Do you draw before you sculpt?”
“No, I ride!” she exclaims.
Professor Baken, well familiar with the Olympic sport of dressage, concludes, “So we realize that one can gain from riding similarly to the gain through drawing: an intense period of awareness and observation igniting all the senses.” Dressage transforms clumsy horses into athletic ballet dancers, encouraging litheness, balance, ease of movement and a flowing liquid quality to equine kinetic energy.
As the horses canter and gracefully engage in serpentines, they also pirouette and imperceptibly change leads, like a dancer changes the lead foot in a dance to go right, left, forwards or backwards. An aspiring dressage pupil for 13 years, I enjoy this equine athletic art form with my Irish sport horse, Big Red, who helped me pass the Level One test in Walk-Trot – and that was not easy!
‘The Electronic Superhighway’
In the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection, “Monekana’s” huge equine structure looms up in a museum atrium as viewers approach artist Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway.” Mr. Paik, the world’s first video artist, according to the Smithsonian, creates a huge electronic, neon-lighted map of the 50 United States of America.
Monitors blare out prototypical images characteristic of each state. Celebrating information’s speed, sound, images, reflections of our 50 states and ourselves, the 336 video monitors and DVD’s broadcast a televised version of the states’ histories, tragedies, accused criminals, buildings and triumphs.
Encircled by neon lights, each state’s shape brightly announces itself. Images flash relentlessly on monitors, depicting the seminal image of each state. For example, Montana’s geothermal deposits shimmer in red, green, yellow and orange patterns, reminiscent of the Caldera, a molten blob simmering three miles beneath Montana’s surface.
Images of cattle herds’ running across the plains appear and the Montana cowboy slyly grins out at us from the monitor. These images of Montana mesmerize me.
Montana and its neighbors:
Adjacent to Montana, Idaho’s spate of potatoes – ubiquitous potatoes, piles and piles of potatoes, chefs’ cooking potatoes, people eating potatoes, and potatoes growing in Idaho’s fields fill the monitors. To the east bordering Montana, North Dakota’s oil derricks pound relentlessly as they drill for oil.
In the space for Washington, D.C., my mother and I wave our arms and we see ourselves wave back in the monitor. In the Northeast, the main feature leaping out of the state of New York, the Empire State Building, demands viewers’ attention as less well-known skyscrapers revolve around that iconic symbol.
In a westward direction, images from the state of California flash the fastest, indicating the birth of the Technology Revolution that took place in Silicon Valley. The images include analog and digital computations of two numbers: zeroes and ones as they line up over and over across the state, touting the digital advances scientists in Menlo Park constantly study.
One darkly reminiscent California image features O.J. Simpson as he teaches an exercise class, reminding us of his lengthy and disturbing double murder trial that obsessed the nation decades ago.
Oklahoma, Nevada, others
To the east in the state of Oklahoma, singers and dancers parade across the screen, recreating the beloved images Rodgers and Hammerstein immortalized in their famous musical, “Oklahoma!” Reverting westward, Nevada glorifies its gambling culture via a one-armed bandit emblazoned with the word BAR, BAR, BAR on the screen.
Nearby, the state of Kansas prominently features Dorothy (Judy Garland) with Auntie Em and Toto in “The Wizard of Oz.” The Great Lakes dominate Minnesota’s space, panel after panel of blue waves, synonymous with the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Nam June Paik
The map reminds me of every state in which my family made a temporary home as my father, a native Montanan, fulfilled his military assignments. Born in New York, I also briefly experienced Washington, Kansas, Massachusetts, Colorado, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Arizona, New Jersey, Virginia and Montana, plus Yong San Military Base in the Republic of South Korea, where Nam June Paik was born.
He died in 2006, having adopted New York City as his second home. My home was wherever my Dad was stationed.