It’s hard to consider the work of Montana artist John Buck without also appreciating the iconic horse sculptures by his wife, Deborah Butterfield.
They both enjoy a place of prominence on the international art scene. But before Buck turned to sculpting full time, he was a lonely art professor at Montana State University in the 1970s missing his new wife, who was teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“I set a trap for her,” Buck said. “I rented this little ranch house close to the mountains outside of Bozeman. It had a horse corral so she could ride English style. When she came to visit, she thought it was wonderful. She saw that everybody in Montana had a horse in the backyard and that was the life she wanted.”
Butterfield quit her job and moved to Montana to be with Buck and her horses. They now share homes near Bozeman and Hawaii. The Yellowstone Art Museum holds works by both artists in its permanent collection.
You can’t enter the museum’s “Boundless Visions” exhibit in the first-floor gallery without walking around Buck’s 10-foot wood sculpture, “The Music Book.” The work is thought provoking — a wood carving of a naked woman whose head is a giant outline of a book that holds symbols of music, including a songbird.
The sculpture is part of a series of Buck sculptures involving nudes with books for heads.
“I’ve done a number of pieces touching on this idea of shapes that are related to sound. It comes from the fact that I am pretty deaf, sometimes words don’t sound like they do in my mind,” Buck said.
Butterfield’s metal horse sculpture has been used for years as the defining image of the YAM. Both artists support the YAM as members of its National Council, executive director Robyn Peterson said.
In 2002, when “The Music Book,” was up for sale at the YAM’s annual auction, a group of 19 area arts supporters pooled their resources to purchase the piece for the YAM’s permanent collection.
Peterson said the acquisition was a historic moment for the YAM because it helped preserve work by an important artist like Buck, who isn’t a Montana native but has spent several decades working and living here. Only a handful of works in the collection have inspired this kind of group donation effort.
“John’s work is replete with layers of personal symbolism, visual puzzles, and political and social comment, all packed into a visual form that demands your time. You must invest something of yourself to unravel it,” Peterson said.
The YAM’s permanent collection includes seven woodblock prints, one large collaborative piece by Buck and Butterfield and four Buck sculptures.
Steve Corning, of Billings, has become a fan of Buck’s and in recent years he purchased two of Buck’s colorful and symbolic woodblock prints.
“John Buck’s work, especially his sculptures, are really expensive and his wife, Deborah, is one of the superstars in art,” Corning said. “Her work is in the San Francisco airport.”
The two prints Corning purchased include “Rising Phoenix,” which shows the humble dodo bird surrounded with symbolism, and “Red Jesus.”
“It’s the graphic symmetry and the color — those are the immediate things you see. When you approach the prints at 12 inches in front of your eye, then you begin to see all the nuances, the activity around the main figure,” Corning said.
Buck said the woodblock prints, which also require carving into wood, ease his imagination because he can work with ideas that don’t require the same technical process as large sculptures. They are spontaneous and the bright colors are cheerful, he said.
“A lot of times I make these woodcuts that include imagery from the sculpture and vice versa,” Buck said. “They feed into each other. They go hand in hand as far as how I develop. Some of my earliest work is 2-D. It came from the fact that I was doing drawings, then I was cutting out wood shapes and reproducing the items from my drawings.”
Buck likes big. Even his woodcut prints are 6 feet high. His wood sculptures are even larger, standing from 6 to 20 feet tall. Buck said working in large proportions makes seeing his work more of an experience.
“It’s like theater. Why is a theater so big? It’s the scale. It’s what you are presented with,” Buck said.
He tends to create more woodblock prints while living in Hawaii during the winter and builds his sculptures in Montana, where he hires assistants to help in the studio.
“Sometimes I walk in there and say, “That’s big,’ ” Buck said. “I feel fortunate to have help.”