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David Butler

David Butler, c. 1970

David Butler, c. 1970

Courtesy of Richard Gasperi,
photo by Richard Gasperi

Born 1898, Good Hope, Louisiana

Died 1997, Patterson, Louisiana

David Butler was born twenty-five miles west of New Orleans in a small town situated on the banks of the Mississippi River. His father was a carpenter, and his mother served as a missionary with the Baptist church. Both had a profound influence on his sculptural style and the messages he conveyed through his art. Butler dropped out of school after his mother’s unexpected death and helped raise his seven siblings. When the younger children reached their teens, he moved about sixty miles farther west to Patterson, Louisiana, and began working as a manual laborer at the local sawmills, railroads, and transportation agency. A head injury suffered in a workplace accident in 1962 forced Butler to retire. He enjoyed cultivating his garden and started to make polychromatic sculptures out of flattened corrugated roofing tin to provide outdoor decorative elements. What began as representations of animals and people developed into a wide-ranging environmental installation comprising religious symbols and fantastically rendered creatures.

Many of the works Butler installed around his yard were kinetic objects, with rudders and flaps activated by the wind. In Untitled (Windmill with Rooster), the eponymous bird rotated around the central pole as the breeze caught a blade attached to a figure at the end of a crossbar. The work produced a dazzling visual effect of patterns and colors when swirling in the wind. Butler also affixed decorative screens to each of his windows to allow for greater privacy and deter sunlight from entering the house. One such screen, The Last Supper, provides a unique iconographical interpretation of the biblical scene, as Butler shows only six of the thirteen participants. Four seated disciples turn toward the speaker at the left, perhaps bearing witness to Christ’s prophetic declaration regarding his betrayal. Installed indoors, the screens transformed the floors and walls into stages for the fleeting play of light and shadows, and the religious screens established an inner sanctum removed from the outside world. Butler stopped producing these works after many were stolen and collectors’ demands overwhelmed him. He had no interest in displaying the work outside of his own self-curated property.

 

Nicholas Miller

 

Umberger, Leslie, ed. Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists. Sheboygan, WI: John Michael Kohler Arts Center, with Princeton Architectural Press, Princeton, NJ, 2007.