Winner of Last Year’s Regional Show at Mystic Arts Center

We recently sat down with artist, teacher, and extreme thinker William Butcher to talk about his artwork, the creative process behind it and what exactly it is he’s conveying to us through his varied and impressive works which stretch the mind and delight the eye. Bill has taught painting and sculpture for 30 years, and is currently head of the art department at Suffield Academy in Connecticut. He holds BFA and MFA degrees from the Drake University School of Fine Arts where he studied painting with internationally recognized artists Jules Kirschenbaum and Cornelis Ruhtenberg. His work has received numerous top awards including several solo exhibitions throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States.

Art lovers, philosophers and anyone with a curiosity of what life is all about can revel in Bill’s work, which is showcased in Mystic Arts Center’s Schuster Gallery through September 22.

MAC: Bill, you describe your current exhibition at MAC as “a cohesive series of paintings that explore the mysterious and illusive spiritual nature of human life.” What does that mean?

WB: From a painterly point of view, a form that is derived from the visual world and used as imagery in a picture appears to have a spiritual life itself, if it is observed accurately, drawn well and presented in such a way that the three dimensional reality of the object or figure is communicated on the paradox of a flat surface. There is yet another paradox in that any object in the world is inseparable from the space that surrounds it – including us. When the artist presents this truth in a two or three-dimensional medium, the negative space becomes positive resulting in a truly mysterious juxtaposition of form and space. It is all of these things that I attempt to reveal and come to terms with in my work. In this way, all that I do is an examination of the spiritual nature of human life. [Creating] is a spiritual act in itself, as it is largely intuitive and often illusive and understood but little. In fact, if I assume to understand this force I have surely set myself up for a fall artistically, as I would be left to rely on aesthetic and technical facility alone. 

Sacrificial HeartMAC: What kind of creative process do you adhere to?

WB: My creative process has much to do with visions and picture ideas that occur as I am out and about in the visual world. These are often coupled with a philosophical notion or concept. If this inspiration is powerful enough, then I will make a sketch of the idea and allow my extensive drawing and design experience to give form and life to this notion. The images evolve over time and the construction of the picture has much to do with visual nuance, and design concepts. Color is determined by whatever feel is emerging and has much to do with mood and emotional content.

More recently I have proceeded with a painting by choosing a canvas size and drawing directly on the stretched canvas with no preconceived idea. Once an image begins to occur the picture is built piece by piece, working on multiple areas simultaneously. It is a bit easier for me to do this after thirty years’ experience.

MAC: What is your favorite artistic medium, and why?

WB: I have always proffered the acrylic paint system. I do a lot of glazing so the fast drying nature of this paint allows faster build up and progress. I also use many different materials and mediums and the acrylic polymers are very flexible and durable. Plus, I worked for years in a studio at home. Oil paint or other solvent-based paints would have been dangerous and miserable because of fumes.

MAC: At what point in your life did you discover creating art was a passion for you? What happened during that time?

WB: It is hard to know at what point in my life that actual art making was a definite passion. I have always been a builder and a maker of things from very young. Constantly hammering away in the basement my folks used to say. It was perhaps in my high school years that fine art became a serious interest. I have had the good fortune since then to have worked with highly accomplished artists who have been teachers and mentors to me. My college years especially were of great impact. All of my instructors were practicing painters and sculptors who were highly driven artists. Their passion for their work and for teaching was intense and truly heartfelt. The wife of my painting instructor who taught figure drawing was a Bauhaus student. She was in the last classes there and was literally chased down the street away from the building as the Nazi’s was destroying it. She was passionate about her work and all of her students as you can imagine. I also had the great fortune to have my final mentor when I joined the faculty of Suffield Academy back in 1980. Mario Vincenti was one of the most gifted artists and teachers I had ever met. He was also one of the most intelligent and sensitive humans I had encountered. The influence he had on me was as valuable as anyone could expect in this life. It has been an honor for me to carry on the work he began at Suffield. 

MAC: In your piece, “The Earthbound Scholar” earth appears to be plugged into (literally via an electric socket) some kind of astral force, which the scholar is also connecting to in a chaotic, spinning sort of way. As an artist, do you feel in some way that you are taking these chaotic spinning forces of the unknown and translating them into something tangible for your viewers?

WB: I think it is safe to say that yes I am attempting to translate the chaotic spinning unknown forces into something tangible. In many ways this is what all of my work is about. The earthbound man and woman can only hope to make some sense of the grand order and chaos that fills our experience through study and deep contemplation and in my case, painting. It is reflective thought seen by the eyes.

The Earthbound scholar is a self-portrait in many ways. It is also homage to my painting professor Jules Kirschenbaum. What I suppose I hoped to communicate is the weight of knowledge as it comes to bare against the unknowable and the unfathomable. The iconic imagery in the picture serves as beacons of faith and understanding that humans have adhered to historically. What is important to understand at this point is that much of what is communicated is brought by the viewer himself or herself. As they experience this picture it is hoped that whatever visual stimulus the painting has will cause them to contemplate a question like: What circumstance caused this artist to make these images like this…and ultimately what meaning does any of this have for me. As many visionary painters have admitted over the centuries: much of what I fashion I understand but little. I am certainly no exception.

MAC: When you’re not painting, what are you doing with your time?

WB: I do spend much of my time teaching. I find this to be enormously inspiring most of the time. Teaching in many ways is inseparable from my work as an artist. Teaching is an art and it must be constantly reaffirmed and practiced to be of value to students especially art students. In this way my experience at the easel is brought directly to the classroom. I am also a sailor and an amateur boat builder. I have interest in mechanical things. I am currently restoring a vintage BMW motorcycle that has a sidecar. Most importantly I aspire to be the best dad and husband I can be.

MAC: What is your favorite thing about teaching others? Why?

WB: The most important and valuable and favorite aspect of teaching is to witness and be part the excitement a young person experiences when they first discover a talent they did not realize they had. What equals that is when the young artist makes their first connection with their own artistry and begins to understand and identify what imagery is truly their own.

Learn more about Mystic Arts Center and the Schuster Gallery at mysticarts.org

Interview by Mari Kodama