Dan’s Papers Cover Artist Michael Butler on ‘Baleen in Blue’

Michael A. Butler's art on the cover of the June 18, 2021 Dan's Papers issue
Michael Butler’s art on the cover of the June 18, 2021 Dan’s Papers issue

Once again, Dan’s Papers is featuring the work of Michael Butler, board member and former president of the Eastville Community Historical Society, among his many other community involvements. We had a chance to talk with Butler about this charming and somewhat mythological piece that spotlights our beautiful waters and marine life.

What is this piece called? It has a mythological feel to it.

The title of the painting is “Baleen in Blue,” which I completed in 2018. It is an image of a finback whale which is typically brownish-gray in color, not blue. Finbacks are baleen whales meaning that instead of teeth they filter their food (squid, herring, krill) through the baleen. The two squid are there to represent some of these food sources. You might correctly say that it is a somewhat fictionalized portrayal. Finbacks whales are the next-largest whale after blue whales. The two have been known to mate thus producing hybrid offspring.

Michael Butler in his home studio, Photo: Barbara Lassen
Michael Butler in his home studio Barbara Lassen

This piece was in a show last year at the Eastville Community Historical Society, Genesis and Transcendence. Can you talk a little about that show and about the ECHS?

“Baleen in Blue” has been exhibited at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, the Eastville Community Historical Society, and Amagansett Library. The exhibit at ECHS was especially meaningful as it was basically a retrospective of my work spanning a period of 30 years. More than 45 paintings were in that exhibit. And of course, ECHS is very near and dear to me as I have served as recording secretary, vice-president and president of the organization, as well as having been a board member for many years. The “Genesis” portion of the title refers back to my Melting Pot series of paintings of which my first Dan’s Papers cover is typical. These works portrayed people of various races and backgrounds of which African American communities are comprised. The “Transcendence” part of the title refers to the sense of limitlessness or of going beyond the normal physical boundaries to that space where many artists and creatives find themselves.

Since you were a kid. What’s one of your earliest East End memories?

One of my earliest memories of the East End, or the country as we called it when I was a child, is of the early morning mists rising off the farms along Scuttlehole Road as the sun rose. Another clear memory is that of staying in one of the cottages owned by my great-uncle. I was probably about 3-4 years old. From the upper floor one could see the channel markers in the bay blinking at night. I had not realized until now that I have incorporated various versions of that scene into several of my paintings.

Art by Michael Butler, Photo: Barbara Lassen
Art by Michael Butler Barbara Lassen

The background seems cracked, like glass. Are you trying to tell us something?

The background of the painting with the crackling effect is based upon the frescoes found in the ancient Minoan and Cretan civilizations. Mythological and ancient themes are often depicted in my paintings. I wanted to create the effect of a wall fresco that had been unearthed after centuries of obscurity but still has a fresh, modern aspect. A whale seemed a natural fit, as I painted it during my term of employment at the SHW&HM.

Dan’s Papers is proud to feature your work again on its cover. This cover coincides with Juneteenth and the opening of the Southampton African American Museum. How do you feel about that?

I am really pleased and proud that my painting has been chosen to coincide with the upcoming Juneteenth commemorations and the opening of the Southampton African American Museum. This opening has been long awaited and a lot of blood, sweat and tears of numerous people have gone into bringing that dream to fruition. I have known Brenda Simmons for many years and she has helped to boost my art career by including me in several exhibits that she has curated.

Frankly, regarding Juneteenth, I was not familiar with that holiday until my brother, Dr. Martin Butler and I curated an exhibit on African American holidays and celebrations for ECHS over 15 years ago. These included Pinkster, Watch Night, Jonkonnu and Juneteenth. Although it was not part of my family’s tradition it is indeed gratifying to see that more of these are moving into mainstream culture.

Dan's Papers cover by Michael Butler (detail)
Art from an earlier Dan’s Papers cover by Michael Butler

As a self-taught artist, who are other artists whose work you admire and why?

Other artists whom I admire…so many: Henri Rousseau for his use of jewel tones and depictions of the outdoors; Aaron Douglas for his shadows and beams of light which highlight his subject matter; and local artist Barbara Hadden for her great Sag Harbor scenes.

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