Studio session

By D.F. Bailey, February 2012

Both whimsical and provocative, Leonard Butt’s sculptures testify to a healthy imagination.

Learn to trust your imagination.” That’s the hard-won lesson Leonard Butt now imparts to his students and admirers.

It’s also the guiding principle that serves as his passport into the cosmos of his fantastic sculptures. A guest to his home studio—a north-facing, well-lit space framed on one side with floor-to-ceiling windows and a French door leading onto a lush garden—is confronted by statues of men and women locked in an exploration of their own worlds.

Make no mistake, these remarkable beings have emerged, seemingly intact, from the depths of a unique, imaginative mind: Men with fish crowns and fish ties. A man and woman discovering one another as they emerge from the body of a fish. A dog flying through the air with improbable wings. A pensive soul with a lopsided house perched atop his head. What are these creatures?

“It’s about disguise, personas—and how we reveal ourselves,” Butt muses, as he surveys the hundreds of pages in his “research work book,” a sort of shopping list of the imagination which is littered with sketches, cryptic literary passages, and detailed drawings of sculptures that have captured his interest for possible future works.

“The image of the fish,” he continues, “has something to do with the unconscious, the unknown aspects of ourselves. And humour,” he adds, as if the unconscious world is teasing him with every new piece he takes on.

“And a lot of the work is about male and female relationships.” Indeed, there’s a yin-yang dynamic at play in every sculpture. If it’s not about sexual energy, it’s about the individual coming to terms with the forces driving us in directions we can barely perceive. Or about the struggle to understand who we are as individuals, in relationship with one another, and to the “other”—that nebulous, perhaps unknowable part of human consciousness.

When asked to describe the source of his working imagination, Butt says, “All the sculptures begin with a sketch to work out variations, proportions and alignment.” But the specific stimulus for each piece may come as a surprise. “Literary sources are often an inspiration for a sketch. For example, Ian McEwan’s descriptive use of language or an unusual turn of phrase.”

While literary sources are important to Butt (occasionally they provide the titles for his sculptures) he also draws on nature and the environment for inspiration. An avid kayaker with years of experience navigating the shores around Vancouver Island, he’s fortunate to live steps away from a hiking trail that rises to a hilltop providing an unobstructed view of the Juan de Fuca Strait and the Olympic Mountains. From there he noticed how the prevailing westerly winds bent the surrounding trees into a perpetual hunch-back posture. This observation led to his understanding that imperceptible cultural forces shape our own lives in a similar manner. These insights inspired the creation of the endearing figure depicted in a piece entitled “The Thoughts That (Quietly) Shape Us.”

The rarified sensibility of his craft has modest beginnings. He recalls his childhood years living on a military base in Germany where his favourite toy was plasticine. He spent hours creating heroic figures inspired by Marvel comics. He took up painting in high school, but colour vision deficiency (com-monly known as colour blindness) steered his creative energy toward sculpture. At the Alberta College of Art and Design, he learned about “form” through his figurative work, which has always come naturally to him.

After the years spent in art classes, studying the work of his mentors, trying techniques new and old, he found himself fighting against pre-conceived notions of art theory. It’s a battle many young artists have to lose before they can move forward. By “giving up the fight,” Butt reached the turning point in his artistic career. He decided to yield to the muse and “learn to trust my imagination.” Now, everything he creates is marked by his unique blend of whimsical provocation, the unconscious mind made manifest, existential thoughtfulness, zen, and the carnival of the absurd. There is something for everyone here, and when you look closely, you will see something of yourself. Many others agree; as the winner of six awards at the Sooke and Sidney Fine Arts Shows, his work is gaining wider recognition.

When he’s in high gear, Butt can spend 10 hours a day for three or four days working on a sculpture until it’s complete. He likes to listen to the French-language CBC jazz station where the cosmopolitan musical play-lists and the DJ’s foreign banter provide a background groove.

After the hands-on sculpting is complete, Butt usually fires the clay in his studio kiln to vitrify the surface. At times he’ll risk losing a sculpture if he Raku-fires the bisqued piece. While it provides a brilliant, glaze finish, only a few sculptors will employ Raku, since the extreme temperature changes can destroy the work before the kiln door is opened.

For now, Butt is balancing his artistic life with his commitment to Glenlyon Norfolk School where he is the senior art instructor and school counsellor. When he envisions the future, he imagines a time when he has a bigger kiln and can work on a larger scale. Recently, he’s tried working with bronze, a high-cost venture that provides substantial rewards—and the possibility of creating multiple copies of his most successful work. It’s an endeavour fans of contemporary sculpture eagerly await.


Sculptures by Leonard Butt are on exhibit during February and March at Red Art Gallery, 2033 Oak Bay Ave (Tues-Sat, noon-4pm), 250-881-0462, There is an artist’s reception on February 5, 2-4pm.

D. F. Bailey is a local writer. His most recent novel is The Good Lie.