Much like when you view his paintings, when you enter Michael Butler’s neat bungalow home in Sag Harbor’s Eastville neighborhood, you’re immediately struck by the colors. There are bottles of acrylic paint on every hard surface—table, shelving, file cabinets.
A self-taught painter who’s often described as a narrative artist, Butler clearly has many stories to tell and he’s been hard at work for the past several years to get them on canvas. He has two one-man shows scheduled this year. The first, titled “Genesis and Transcendence,” opens at the Eastville Community Historical Society (ECHS) Heritage House on Friday, February 22 at 5 p.m.; the other will be at the Amagansett Free Library in July.
Butler tends to make small paintings that tell big tales, often historical in nature. Some recent ones have included the great fire that took the Alvin Silver Works in downtown Sag Harbor, featuring lots of roaring red flames; and a summery scene that depicts local resident May Parker, who’s shown pushing an old fashioned baby carriage down a sidewalk surrounded by friendly neighbors and welcoming sites around Eastville. Parker was an African American woman who made candy at home and took it into downtown Sag Harbor in a baby carriage to sell. This candy maker is an example of Butler’s ongoing documentary series on local people, “characters who lived in this area at one time.”
There are also colorful, geometric fish. “Many [of my paintings] now have no storyline behind them. I’m of the temperament now to do something fun, not always interested in the whole documentary history behind the ideas,” Butler explains. He doesn’t think of his paintings evolving, but perhaps changing in some ways over time. He recently copied one of his paintings as a gift for a friend celebrating their 75th birthday. He used “most of the same colors, but it came out so, so different.”
Butler has recently embraced the term “magical realism” to describe his work. When he paints a panoramic view of Sag Harbor, he doesn’t strictly stick to the script of reality. The buildings may be from different time periods, or they may not have been contemporary with each other at all, but as he says, “it’s all Sag Harbor” and it works.
As the manager of the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, and a longtime resident of Eastville, Sag Harbor’s historically diverse neighborhood, Butler has unique insights into area history. The Butler family has deep roots in Eastville and he moved to Sag Harbor full-time in 1988, after an early career in New York.
He’s actively exploring, “How am I going to spend the last quarter of my life?” In addition to his paintings, Butler hopes to complete a book on the rich history of Eastville. He’s a past president of the Eastville Historical Society, which is headquartered just a stone’s throw from his home. He also cites researching his genealogy as an ongoing “big project.” He says, “It’s much easier now with ancestry.com, and my brother and sister are doing 23andMe. We’re finding out a lot of interesting stuff.”
You can learn many interesting things about Michael Butler and his hometown at his exhibition this weekend at the ECHS Heritage House at 139 Hampton Street (Route 114) in Sag Harbor. Call 631-725-4711 or visit eastvillehistorical.org for more information.