Kathy Butterly, “Super Bloom,” 2019, clay, glaze, 6 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 10 inches. The Ruttenberg “52 Collection, Chicago. © Kathy Butterly 2021. Images courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photos by Alan Wiener

If you’re looking for an enlivening way to spend an hour or so on a gray winter day, make your way to the Portland Museum of Art for “Kathy Butterly: Out of one, many/HEADSCAPES” (through Mar. 5), a ceramic exhibition not quite like any you’ve likely seen. It’s eccentric, colorful and, the more closely you look, incredibly masterful.

Butterly is an interesting figure. She shuffles between studios in New York and Maine, creating small, quirky-looking ceramic sculptures that belie her painstakingly worked and reworked process. She makes no preparatory sketches. She simply attacks the clay, pinching and folding the base form, pushing and pulling it, carving and smoothing it. Then she glazes and fires individual pieces repeatedly (up to 40 times), drawing from some 5,000 glazes over the course of more than a year on some pieces until she and the sculpture “reach an agreement” that it is finished.

The title refers to two base forms that comprise the show’s offerings. “Out of one, many” are works that begin as casts from the same pint glass mold before she starts manipulating it. “HEADSCAPES” are not overtly anthropomorphic, but nevertheless intimate busts on pedestals. Several of the latter were made specifically for this show.

At first, you may not realize the complexity of Butterly’s works because the colors are often so cheerfully bright and the forms and titles so arch and whimsical that you might actually breeze in and out of the gallery after a chuckle or two. In fact, almost everything about them initially seems to play against any sort of seriousness. Yet, if you look patiently and intently, it will begin to dawn on you the extraordinary vocabulary of techniques from which Butterly draws.

Glazes are smooth and shiny, sometimes matte, sometimes gesturally painted or layered one on top of the other. They are spattered, gloppy and encrusted, or crackled. Several are astonishingly detailed, sporting minutely beaded strands and garlanded ribbons, carved bases, or textured to resemble moss or hair (either ringlets or beard- or pubic-like fuzz). Often a single piece combines a variety of these techniques in one form.

Kathy Butterly, “Color Hoard-r,” 2013, clay, glaze, 5 x 3 3/4 x 3 inches. Courtesy the artist.

The forms themselves are pinched and collapsed in ways that are reminiscent of George Ohr, “the Mad Potter of Biloxi, Mississippi,” or at times feel misshapen, punched or bashed-in like some of Robert Arneson’s head sculptures (Butterly acknowledges both influences). Without question, there is tremendous skill in her manipulation and application of materials.


What becomes quite clear is that Butterly has an autonomic, freeform approach to her material that grants her enormous expressive latitude. Mind you, it doesn’t always work. “Color Hoard-r” and “Super Bloom” look random in ways that don’t feel cohesive. A piece like “Fixer” appears downright messy, as if the color drips and smears were unintentional (though I’m sure they were not).

Kathy Butterly “Like Butter,” 1997 Clay, glaze 4 1/2 x 3 3/4 x 3 3/8 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Alan Wiener

Some look a bit cute and/or kitschy. “Like Butter” is a virtuoso piece, to be sure. Carved, beaded, garlanded, multiply glazed – it exhibits her mastery of materials. Pads of butter ring the opening, and the pink, fleshy form seems a play on the “butt” in “butter.” Very cute. Maybe a bit too cute.

“Cenote,” a piece she made after the bombing of the World Trade Center while living near the site with her husband and children, is poignant for this historical context. Cenotes are cave-like geological phenomena created by deep sinkholes in limestone with pools underneath. They have a secret quality to them that makes them feel like safe escape hatches from the catastrophes of the world above ground.

Kathy Butterly “Cenote,” 2004, clay, glaze, 4 x 4 1/8 x 4 inches. Collection of Eric Brown, Sag Harbor, NY.

The piece is beautifully worked. Its mouth and interior, textured and glazed bright green to resemble soft moss, feel magically inviting. The form is fluid and taffy-like, and the overall glaze is a sensuous, shiny salmon color. But the addition of a yellow channel shape through which blue water runs and drips down into the cenote makes it a bit too obvious.

Yet, when they work, which is most of the time, Butterly’s sculptures are marvelous. I particularly like those that look monochromatically glazed, like “Active Start” and “Pause,” because without all the color, we can simply relish the sensuality of the shapes. They can evoke the voluptuousness of folds in skin or rubber. This visual malleability gives them a kind of tenderness and vulnerability that is very affecting.

One of these, “Black and White and Red and Blue,” resembles thick rubber straps woven and connected to form one of the headscapes. But in actuality, what comes off as black is really underpainted layers of blue followed by red. The white appears as details on the inside of what look like handles on the form. It was made in 2021 and, according to the exhibition handout, deals with “the past two years of turbulence: political strife, inequity amplified by the pandemic, and civil rights protests.”


I read this after leaving the show and, remembering it later it struck me – perhaps because of the recently released movie “Till” – that it could also evoke the swollen, beaten head of the horrifically murdered Emmett Till.

Kathy Butterly, “I’m Not Sure I Trust Your Eggs,” 2010, clay, glaze, 4 1/2 x 3 3/4 x 3 1/2 inches. Collection of Richard Shebairo, New York.

Titles are often ambiguous or mysterious. Without knowing the context of “I’m Not Sure I Trust Your Eggs,” for example, we are free to interpret it as we like. In this case, however, the title registers as funny and playful, which might lead us to dismiss the work before considering it closely. We can still admire its form, which is one of the most beautifully – and seemingly intentionally – shaped in the show. We can also revel in its play of matte, crackled glaze, which has the organic appearance of parched earth, and its undulations of smooth white and orangey buffed glazes.

As an object, this, and the delicate beading at the base, is richly rewarding. But the title actually refers to an NPR report on the many GMOs we ingest in our food, which conceptually fused with Butterly’s later observation that commercial and farm eggs had vastly different-colored yolks. The beading represents tiny eggs, the white glaze the egg whites, and the orange-glazed discs the yolks.

This raised an interesting question for me. None of this detracts from the gorgeous fluidity and sensuality of the sculpture, of course. But I wondered whether some kind of legend might expand the meanings for the viewer, making the experience of it more layered, or whether that would lead the viewer to pigeonhole the sculpture as a single thing and, so, bypass the pleasurable experience of its form and glazing. It’s still an open question for me – one of many this sleeper of a show might get you to think about.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 

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