by sarah rozeboom for the northwest arkansas times
october 17, 2003
N.Y. Ron; Silver Miner Larry; Lee, the Hobo from Hell. These men, who pass the hours riding trains and frequenting soup kitchens, probably never dreamed their likenesses would one day hang behind glass in a gallery.
But then they met Russell Butler - aka buZ blurr, a third-generation railroad man who also happens to be an internationally known artist - at a West Coast Hobo Gathering in Dunsmuir, Calif.
Now Butler's black-and-white stencil portraits of the men are part of his exhibit "Pretty Ugly White Black Blues Again" at Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale. The exhibit, which spent the month of August at the International Curatorial Space in New York, lasts until Nov. 9.
Stephanie Lewis, visual arts director at ACO, said she brought the exhibit to Springdale because she kept getting things in the mail from Butler and was intrigued. She said his work has a hard-edged, modern quality that she likes, but the portraits also qualify as fine art.
"They're the most delicate stencils I've seen in a long time," Lewis said. "They're like black lace."
Butler, a resident of Gurdon since 1959, developed his art form as a way of documenting his encounters with people and other artists during his travels.
His process begins with a Polaroid snapshot, which comes out of the camera covered with a negative image that is peeled away. Instead of disposing of the negative, Butler uses an X-acto knife to cut away the parts he wants to be white. He then photocopies the resulting stencil to create the portrait. The final step is to reduce the image and perforate it to make an unofficial postage stamp.
Butler frequently mails his stamp portraits to their subjects and is an active part of what's known as a mail art network. He describes the international network as "nebulous" because people join and participate enthusiastically for a while, then fade out without explanation.
Mail art began as an underground movement, especially popular with Eastern Europeans whose freedom of expression was severely restricted, Butler said. It involves creating art and sending it through the postal system. Possible forms include postcards, decorated envelopes, books or anything else that can be mailed. Rubber stamps, stickers and artificial postage stamps are commonly used.
Butler is on the mailing lists of numerous artists. In fact, he has received so much mail art throughout the years that he's created an archive and devoted an entire room in his house to it.
Although the name of his exhibit at ACO is a bit of a mouthful, it's a carefully chosen one.
"It's all done in straight black and white," Butler said. "'Pretty Ugly is about the starkness of the portraits... Many (people) are reluctant to see themselves in such a stark manner."
The "Blues" portion of the title has a more personal significance.