Using the surrounding terrain as inspiration, artist James Butler has decorated his home to reflect the Midwest.
Landscape painting, college teaching and home crafting are the lenses artist James Butler uses to focus on his deeply respectful philosophy of the Midwest aesthetic.
Like his sweeping landscape paintings that capture the nobility of place, Butler's home echoes the spirit of the Midwest terrain. His canvases put man in perspective with nature. His home takes cues from a regional perspective.
The artist lives with his family in a new prairie-style home a short commute from Illinois State University, where he teaches. His intellectual and emotional connection with the Midwest started during boyhood in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and evolved under the influences of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style and the Craftsman style of brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene.
"A home can be a statement of philosophy, reflective of work and attitudes," Butler said. "We spend a great deal of time here and really wanted the space to be uplifting. It seems reasonable that to achieve that, you would integrate a sense of the land. In the Midwest, there is a sense of horizontality and hugging the land."
Outside, the house speaks in the tawny gray-brown palette of early spring.
Inside, the palette iterates colors highlighted in an Arts and Crafts survey exhibition several years ago at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Colors like Sedona clay, mauve desert, Kansas wheat, toasted sesame and Nantucket gray are historically emotive and grounding.
Interior walls in his previous home were primarily white and lacked that contextual transition with the environment outside his windows.
Several pieces from his 1998 exhibit at Lakeview Museum, "Views Along the Mississippi River: James D. Butler," now hang in his home. One of his works is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has pieces at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art as well as in private collections and museums around the world.
As a painter, Butler studies and works with color, understanding its nuances.
"Some colors feel flat. Some create depth and open up a space," he said. "Some colors change as light changes. ...from warm and dark to light and airy."
Butler contracted with Prairie Woodworks of Downs for his home's interior wood. The company also makes frames for his paintings.
"I talked with Ron (Skidmore) and Steve (Stenger) of Prairie Woodworks for five years on this project," Butler said. "I didn't want regular oak. The pattern is too strident, so we used rift-sawn oak. It's not quite quarter-sawn, but it has a sense of age to it."
In contrast with the rift-sawn trim, Mission-style doors in the home are made from oak boards with a bolder grain. The trim is simple and straightforward in the Greene and Greene Craftsman style.
"There is an honesty and truth in it," Butler said.
His front door, made of oak, is Mission style with sidelights and hand-hammered hardware. Floors in the front foyer of the home are Brazilian cherry. The studio floor had to be a material that could withstand heavy treatment. Butler finally decided on hickory which he left in a light, natural color.
The artist's home and studio are connected. The studio is about 900 square feet, two stories tall and was designed to accommodate his larger canvases.
In addition to the influences of Wright and the Greene brothers, Butler often references the "Not So Big House," by Sarah Susanka. One of Susanka's principles for creating a sense of spaciousness is being able to view the outside immediately upon entering a home.
From just inside the front door, visitors to Butler's home step into a large foyer with a sitting area to one side. They can see out windows in the great room just beyond a dining space separated from the great room with glass and wooden pocket doors. The dining table can be opened to seat 22 people.
"The organization of the house is designed to be different. Not dramatic, but to have surprises. Frank Lloyd Wright squeezed the ceiling down for an intimate feeling and then opened up the space," Butler said.
In the great room, the light of day progresses across the room through clerestory windows. The two-story room can also be experienced from a balcony in the bedroom area of the second floor. Another second-floor balcony looks out over the studio. Each balcony provides an opportunity to observe landscape paintings from a distance.
"A painting is not just a visual experience. Architecture makes a statement beyond being visually interesting. There are different emotional and perceptual levels of this house," he said.
"Intimate and magnificent could be opposite words in language. But a home can be built with quality that is not so opulent the general public can't afford it."
Both his paintings and his home are metaphors beyond the subject. The 14 oils in "Views Along the Mississippi River" start at the origins of the river in the pristine environment of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and follow the course of the river past major industrialized cities, bridges, locks and dams and rural farmland, ending at the river's confluence with the Gulf of Mexico and an ever-expanding "dead zone."
The artist explores the tension between man's futile attempts to control the river and the unbridled power of the river -- a dichotomy between domination and respect. The conflict and harmony between man and nature is a palpable presence in Butler's painting. His home is designed to communicate the harmony.
Bill Conger, curator of university galleries at Illinois State University, said, "Artists need to be engulfed in their vision. ... both in and out of their work. Out of their work is mostly their home because that's the area they can control."
Conger said Butler's work speaks of his deep respect.
"Jim invests time and labor into each of his pieces. The work unfolds. Some artists envision the end product, but for Jim and many others, there is meaning in the process. The making of art is as important as the product," Conger said.
That respect of the process is evident in Butler's home.
In speaking about his open staircase, which was made by Prairie Woodworks, Butler said, "I really anguished over this. I really thought it would be less time consuming than it turned out to be. Each piece of wood was touched by my hand in five processes" including sanding, staining and sealing.
In keeping with his environmental philosophy, Butler wanted to make his home as green as possible. He has geothermal heating, extra blown-in cellulose insulation and compact fluorescent lighting. Recycling is part of his family's routine.
Before moving into this house 2 1/2 years ago, he and his family lived in downtown Bloomington in a small house built in 1910.
"When we were living in town, we couldn't see the horizon line or sunset," Butler said. "To see sunset, I'd have to run outside. My intention here is to be part of nature and use it as inspiration."
Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250 or email@example.com.