Constructing Sculpture


An American artist, Deborah Butterfield (born in 1949), lives on a ranch in Montana, and constructs* sculptures that represent* horses. Some of these sculptures are smaller than life-size and made of mud and sticks, others are made partly or entirely of discarded industrial material*.

[* marks a link to that word's definition]

Take a close look at:


Deborah Butterfield's Palomino, 1981, plant leaf material and paper pulp, with wire armature*, Norton Museum, West Palm Beach, FL. Clicking on the title of a work will show you a larger picture of it.

Other sculptures, like the next example, Butterfield constructed of junk she gathered from around her ranch and from dumps nearby.

Using a wire armature*, Butterfield pulls together these materials as she explores her interests-- both with horses and with the materials themselves. Some appear quiet and still, while others suggest lots of movement*. The feel of each depends on Butterfield's choices of materials and on how those are arranged -- for solids and voids*, colors* and texture*. The sculptures are sometimes skeletal in construction, and sometimes dense. Patches of rust look like paint, and light plays over the beaten metal scraps as it would over a twitching flank.



see thumbnail to leftDeborah Butterfield's Horse #2-85, 1985, found materials: barbed wire, pipes, fencing, an old tire, and corroded scraps of metal and wood, 33 3/4 x 48 x 109 inches, AZ State U. Art Museum, Tempe. (The Phoenix Art Museum too has a wonderful Butterfield horse made of found pieces of metal and wood.)


Art writers have interpreted these sculptures as new images of the American West, echoing ghost towns and junkyards in their materials, and reflecting changes in our way of life. For instance, Horse #2-85 has a tire in its rump reminding us that the horse has largely been replaced by cars and trucks.



see thumbnail to rightDeborah Butterfield, Rex, 1991, found* painted steel*, 77 x 110 x 24 inches, Lowe Art Museum, Miami, FL.


Deborah Butterfield's sculptures are good examples of two important ideas in art: unity* and variety*. Unity means that all the parts of an artwork look as though they belong together. Variety means that some parts are different from others.

Unity and variety are principles of design*. Unity makes a work of art pleasant to see. Variety makes a work interesting to look at many times. How has Deborah Butterfield unified her assemblages?

A construction can be unified in many ways. Objects can look as though they belong together if they are similar in color, size, shape or form. They can have a similar meaning or use. They might be made from similar materials.

Your assignment:

1. Be sure you understand the meaning of form* and formal* issues, as well as what artists mean by elements of design* and principles of design*. Formal issues should not be confused with issues concerning representation* or narrative art*.

2. Materials: Create a sculpture by constructing it out of materials which you can obtain with little or no expense. Some suggestions: cardboards, scrap lumber, pipe, wire, packaging stuff, raw cotton or other farm production, and junk / miscellaneous stuff.

Choose materials with shapes/form you might alter very little, but which will take on meaningful form largely with their arrangement.

 TIP: Choose materials and a size in which to work, depending on your school's and your own work areas-- on the kinds of places in which you can work, and on the kinds of things you can move around in and between those spaces.

3. Connect the elements of your construction in ways that will keep them joined*.


Among the ways to join your sculpture's parts:

  • adhesives (glues -- choosing type of glue by considering the surfaces to be adhered)
  • nails, screws, or nuts and bolts, etc.
  • string, rope, wire, chain, etc.
  • staples, tapes, rivets, etc.



4. Size: Your finished work should be at least 18 inches tall, 18 inches wide and 18 inches deep.



Deborah Butterfield's work is in the twentieth-century tradition of constructed art. This vein of work is sometimes called assemblage. Here are some other works made in that tradition:



see thumbnail to leftMarcel Duchamp (French-American, 1887-1968), Bicycle Wheel, 1913 / 1964, metal, painted wood, 126.5 x 31.5 x 63.5 cm, Georges Pompidou Center, Paris. Duchamp called this an "assisted readymade." This is Duchamp's second version. He made the original in 1913 (now lost). See anti-art and Dada.








  1. Having completed the construction of your sculpture, what are the formal issues with which you were concerned? (Mention some formal issues with which you were not concerned.)

  2. Reflect on and describe your reasons for choosing to work with the formal issues that you've listed above, and your reasons for dealing with them in the ways you did.

  3. Analyze and interpret how elements of time and place have influenced the visual characteristics, content, purpose and message of this piece of work.

  4. Name and analyze one or more contemporary art issues and/or influences on this piece of work.

  5. One of the ways in which works of art can be powerful is their communication of universal concepts (e.g., love, birth, death, truth, fear). Compare and explain the ways in which you intend this piece of work to express such concepts. What did you do to ensure this result?

  6. Having completed this unit on sculpture and three-dimensional design, take a few minutes to compare the materials, technologies, media and processes of artists in these areas with those in other arts disciplines and subject areas (i.e., music, dance, and theater) to create and analyze artworks.





General References:

where you'll find information on these art terms (Viewing most of these requires scrolling down another page of alphabetically ordered articles):





Sculpture Unit Introductory Page.