In 2000, Marsha Williams invited the acclaimed sculptor Deborah Butterfield to the family’s Napa ranch to discuss a possible commission. Wandering the sprawling and tranquil property, the artist found herself inspired by the unique textures and qualities of the trees she came across and began to collect fallen sticks and branches from different species of trees. Returning to her Montana studio with the collected wood in tow, Butterfield set about creating three one-of-a-kind horses, each cast from distinctive types of wood, and meant for each of the three Williams children: Zak, Zelda and Cody. Madrone (Cody), made for the youngest of the children, will come to auction this fall as part of Creating a Stage: The Collection of Marsha and Robin Williams (4 October, New York). Ahead of the auction, Sotheby’s spoke to Butterfield about these sculptures, her memories of the Williams family, and how this commission marked a pivotal moment in her career.
This October Sotheby’s will offer one of three sculptures you created for the Williams family. How did you become acquainted – did you know Marsha Williams before this commission?
Not at all, it was actually the first time we met. Marsha had become familiar with my work from the Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle. We connected through the gallery and I came out to Napa to talk about ideas. It was one of those times when things just clicked. Marsha had a real sense of my work and understood how I wanted to approach these sculptures, from a material point of view, and as loose portraits of the children. I decided to go all in.
"You know, even though these are related, like children they can go out into the world separately. They deserve to go out into the world."
Each of these sculptures — Zak, Zelda and Cody — is made from one of these types of wood. How did you decide which to use for each child?
Zelda was so delicate and exotic. The Manzanita was the same – very complex and beautiful. Zak was so blonde and strong, and the oldest of course, and so I chose the oak for him. Cody was in a way in between, both exotic and powerful. They were very beautiful children. My children were roughly the same age. I had this desire to catch a moment in time. These are less of a direct portrait than a meditation on each of the children as I was building the sculptures.
And now Cody is leaving the ranch.
Yes, as it should be though. It’s important to remember that these were never displayed together. Actually, Cody was in their living room for the longest time. You know, even though these are related, like children they can go out into the world separately. They deserve to go out into the world.
"When I have new material, it’s so exhilarating that I almost can’t keep up with myself, putting it on the armature. I had great joy and pleasure building those pieces, because they were so fresh to me. It was one of my favorite commissions. Artistically it opened new possibilities for me."
How was this commission significant to you artistically?
I remember how fast it was and fun. I was mid-career when I made these. I had made quite a few bronzes, but hadn’t worked with these types of wood before. I remember these works just elicited all this different line quality and volume that was exciting for me.
Horses are my metaphor in my life, but to me, the sculptures are a large rectangular canvas on legs. When I have new material, it’s so exhilarating that I almost can’t keep up with myself, putting it on the armature. I had great joy and pleasure building those pieces, because they were so fresh to me. It was one of my favorite commissions. Artistically it opened new possibilities for me.