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Tricking the Eye with Deborah Butterfield


Deborah Butterfield’s Redstick was constructed using 1,430 pounds of solid bronze.   Redstick lives in the Museum’s south lobby, and as a Guest Services Associate, I spent many hours keeping her company in that space. The sculpture was a wonderful source of entertainment. Most guests would simply wander by, nod their head, and move on. The real fun came when people stopped to look the label, which reads simply:

Deborah Butterfield (b. 1949) Redstick, 2007 Bronze

Deborah Butterfield (b. 1949) "Redstick," 2007 Bronze

Deborah Butterfield (b. 1949)
“Redstick,” 2007

“Bronze?!?” they would protest. “That can’t be right.”

Some would then attempt to punch the sculpture in hopes of hearing a hollow wooden thud that might confirm their doubts. (This may go without saying, but please don’t punch the art. It makes us sad.)

But it’s true—Redstick is made of bronze.

Deborah Butterfield began making horse sculptures in the 1970s. For the first decade or so, she created the structures using found objects like sticks and scrap metal. Hunting for materials to work with was a necessary part of the process, as Butterfield explained: “Well, for me, I can’t just have a paint box, and I can’t order supplies from the catalog. I have to go out with a pickup truck and, hopefully, a strong assistant, but sometimes it’s just me, into a scrap yard, climbing around in the pile and dragging stuff out…”

The wood in these earlier sculptures had a tendency to deteriorate over time, so eventually Butterfield began creating her “wooden” horses from cast bronze. It’s an incredibly labor intensive process. She collects sticks, twigs, vines—whatever seems visually interesting. Once Butterfield has a stack of wood, it goes to the Walla Walla Foundry where a bronze casting of each stick is formed. First, sticks are coated with nine layers of a resilient ceramic material capable of withstanding extremely high temperatures. The ceramic shell is then placed in a kiln, stick and all, and fired at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.  This step not only cures the shell, but it burns away the wood inside.

Read more about Deborah Butterfield in "Deborah Butterfield," and other works available in Crystal Bridges Library.

Read more about the artist in “Deborah Butterfield,” and other works available in Crystal Bridges Library.

Once the firing is complete and the shell has cooled, it is cleaned out. Even coats of microcrystalline wax are heated and poured into the shell as it is slowly rotated. This process is repeated until the wax inside the shell is about 3/16” thick. Next, the waxed shells are submerged in a plaster material, dried, fired in a kiln, and then filled with molten bronze. Finally, once the ceramic and plaster has been chipped away, a bronze copy of the original stick is revealed.

Assistants help Butterfield with the heavy lifting as the first bronze pieces are welded into place, forming the framework for the horse. Then, it’s back to the sticks! Butterfield sorts through piles of wooden sticks and places them, sometimes a few at a time, on the armature where they are secured in place with wire.

The complete stick and wood form returns to the foundry to be photographed and disassembled.  Each stick is cast in bronze and then welded onto the frame work. After that, Butterfield makes some final stick placement decisions, and it’s on to the finishing touches. Texture is tooled into the surface of the sculpture, at which point it is sand blasted, heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, spray painted, brush painted, and sealed with hot wax.  Et voilà—massive bronze stick horse!

These horse sculptures stand tall (and heavy) as examples of thoughtful composition paired with seamless engineering and a very deceptive attention to detail. So, yes—it really is bronze. The Museum’s curators are not making things up. There were no cut-and-paste errors in the label-making process. Now, stop punching the sculpture.

Butterfield takes a unique approach to sculpting the animal form. Give it a try yourself at Spring Critters this Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. At this drop-in activity, you and your family can create a mini-sculpture in marvelous Model Magic air-drying clay. Check out a full schedule of drop-in Spring Break Specials online.

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