For Ben Butler '00, tracking his artistic passion back to Bowdoin is not a difficult task.
"It was by the end of my first year," Butler explained, "my first semester, even, that I found the visual arts to be the only discipline in which I could really bring together all of my interests. Whether it was science, philosophy or Asian studies, the visual arts emerged as the ideal discipline for synthesizing all of my interests. And it still is."
Butler found his Drawing I course with Professor of Art Mark Wethli and his Sculpture I class with Professor of Art John Bisbee particularly influential.
"Mark made me especially aware of this opportunity by presenting class in a way that was so specific about drawing but also very broad in its implications. It was a class that was based very much on each students' own thoughts and their own sense of interests."
Following this strong introduction to the arts, Butler pursued a unique, artistic experience in choosing to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York City for his entire junior year.
"Essentially, I made sculpture on my own for the year," Butler explained. "It was a great experience, although I may not have always enjoyed it at the time. It's hard living in New York with no money."
In retrospect, Butler located a shift in his art starting that year.
"It did change my art," he said. "But I don't know if I can say exactly how. I spent so much time exclusively on my work, completely absorbed in it, which is an experience that is very hard to come by at a place like Bowdoin that demands so much from you."
"What was really great about the experience, though, was returning to Bowdoin for my senior year—to that really nurturing environment with all of that experience under my belt," Butler added.
Building on his experience in New York City, Butler embarked on an honors project with Professor Wethli.
"My project grew out of the work I was doing in New York that had to do with taking a finite material and reconfiguring it. In retrospect, it's so easy to see how that was influenced by what Bisbee was working on at the time, an interest I combined with this instinct I had to try it on a larger scale," said Butler.
From the project's beginning, Butler strove to make a project that was public—an interest that manifested itself in 128 railroad ties that he borrowed and used to make a series of temporary structures that he moved around campus every few weeks.
Butler explained how reactive the work was as it confronted the Bowdoin campus on a daily and very conspicuous level.
"The project really became an experiment in architecture and human behavior and psychology. It was fascinating to me to see people interact with spaces and structures, some of which were very large in terms of their footprint," he said. "The biggest thing I learned from that was that others will find things in my work that I never put there intentionally, and I've gradually learned to make that a positive relationship."
"Over time, I've learned to have more control over how I want people to experience my work. It's a matter of witnessing people experiencing the work and gaining an understanding of basic human impulses upon seeing an object or space that they've never seen before," he added.
Upon graduation from Bowdoin and at the suggestion of Professors Wethli and Bisbee, Butler participated in several artist residencies.
"During that first year I had the benefit of going from the somewhat closed artistic environment of Bowdoin to an experience where I was able to meet artists of all different types at all different stages in their careers. It gave me the opportunity to figure out what being an artist and living as an artist was all about."
Following his year of residencies, Butler attended graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago. There, he worked on large-scale sculptures, working almost exclusively in wood —a medium and scale with which he continues to work.
Butler also became increasingly interested in teaching at this time. After looking for a teaching job in the arts, he eventually settled at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
"I was really drawn back to the small liberal arts environment. I really felt that the attitude that the liberal arts school applied was desirable for studying art. It's definitely the attitude I bring to teaching now," Butler said. "I try to perpetually demonstrate that art is an interdisciplinary practice. There are technical aspects, yes, in terms of the materials and the practice, but art is not just about art-art is about the world. So at a place like Bowdoin or Rhodes, when you're really rigorously engaged in four classes, its important to know that there is always something to bring to the studio from all of those other disciplines."
"Thus far, I've found what I really want to focus on is that single question: What kind of knowledge can you gain by working with your hands that you can't gain from reading and writing and thinking?" Butler said.
Such an exploration has remained central to his teaching and to the personal work in sculpture and drawing that he continues to pursue.
"It's a quest that definitely stemmed from my experiences with John and Mark and others at Bowdoin. They continue to be great examples for me, and especially, after teaching for a year, I've come to understand the amazing work they did and continue to do as teachers."