Artist Profile – David Butler

David Butler

1898–1997, lived and worked in Patterson, Louisiana

(detail) David Butler / Untitled (Whirligig with Stand) / 1974 / paint on cut tin and painted wood stand / 62 x 38 x 25 in. / Collection of Gordon W. Bailey

One of the first recognized stars of Southern African-American yard art, David Butler installed a fantastic tin zoological environment on and outside his home in Patterson, Louisiana, over the course of several decades. Butler turned to art in middle age, after a work-related injury at a sawmill. But he managed to bridge his private environment and the broader art world, first rising to prominence with the landmark 1982 exhibition “Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980” at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC. Only a year later, his yard environment was dismantled when illness required him to move in with family, and Butler’s prolific and site-specific practice transformed into the production of discrete objects intended for sale on the art market.

The classic works for which he is known are brightly-colored tin cut-outs, sometimes incorporating found objects, mounted both in windows and on poles and stakes in his yard. Butler constructed a vast menagerie of creatures—which he referred to as “critters”—drawing from Biblical sources and mythological scenes alike. His mother was a missionary, and religion motivated his artistic vision to a certain extent. In Butler’s world, hydras, elephants, bicycles, and Jonah’s whale coexist, all rendered in an abstracted, planar geometry. He developed kinetic sculptures in many cases, and a series of spinning “whirligigs,” windmills, and weathervanes accompanied his stationary animal pieces.




Books and Exhibition Catalogs:

David Butler. New Orleans, LA: New Orleans Museum of Art, 1976.

The Outside Art of David Butler. Patterson, LA: The Louisiana State Museum, 2011.


Books and Exhibition Catalogs that Include Butler:

Livingston, Jane and John Beardsley. Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi/Center for the Study of Southern Culture for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1982.

Southern Folk Images: David Butler, Henry Speller, Bill Traylor. New Orleans, LA: University of New Orelans, 1984.

A Time to Reap: Late-Blooming Folk Artists. South Orange, NJ: Seton Hall University/Museum of American Folk Art, 1985.

Muffled Voices: Folk Artists in Contemporary America. New York: Museum of American Folk Art, 1986.

Naivety in Art. Tokyo, Japan: Setagaya Art Museum, 1986.

Enisled Visions: the Southern Non-Traditional Folk Artist. Mobile, AL: Fine Arts Museum of the South, 1987.

Outside the Main Stream: Folk Art in Our Time. Atlanta, GA: High Museum of Art, 1988.

Gifted Visions: Contemporary Black American Folk Art. Storrs, CT: Atrium Gallery, University of Connecticut, 1988.

Black Art Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams/Dallas Museum of Art, 1989.

Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present. New Orleans, LA: New Orleans Museum of Art, 1993.

Gilman, Deborah Ann. A Study of Four Contemporary Folk Contemporary Untrained Artists from Southern Louisiana. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University/School of Art, 1993.

Trechsel, Gail Andrews, ed. Pictured in My Mind: Contemporary American Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae-Yelen. Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Museum of Art, in association with University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Russell, Charles, ed. Self-Taught Art: The Culture and Aesthetics of American Vernacular Art. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Let It Shine: Self-Taught Art from the T. Marshall Hahn Collection. Atlanta, GA: High Museum of Art, in association with the University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS, 2001.

Lewis, Samella S. African American Art and Artists. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2003.

Umberger, Leslie. Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists. Sheboygan, WI: John Michael Kohler Arts Center, in association with Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.



Lora, Mary Elaine. “The Tin Man.” Louisiana Life, May/June 1982, p. 110.

Lewis, Samella. “David Butler.” International Review of African American Art 11, no. 1 (1993): p. 30-35.

Perry, Regenia A. “Contemporary African American Folk Art in America: An Overview.” International Review of African American Art 11, no. 1 (1993): 4-30.


Selected Group Exhibitions:

Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 1982

J.B. Speed Museum, Louisville, KY, 1982

The Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY, 1982

Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles, CA, 1982-1983

The Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston, TX, 1983.


Solo Exhibitions:

David Butler. New Orleans, LA: New Orleans Museum of Art, 1976.

The Outside Art of David Butler. The Louisiana State Museum, Patterson, LA, 2011.


Museum Collections:
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The High Museum, Atlanta, GA
Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI
The Museum of American Folk Art, New York, NY
Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
The Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.


Compiled by Samantha Mitchell

Artist’s Work