Visual Art Spotlight: Gaia by Connie Butler

Gaia at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

She sits in a relaxed yet commanding posture. Her back is erect. Her chin is aligned with the horizon. Her long, strong jaw and thick, smooth neck belie a soft smile and the gentle daze of one who might be peering into the face of a child or a small woodland creature. Her burly hands land almost weightlessly, one on her knee, the other by her hip. Below her bare athletic torso, her legs stretch out in front of her, hidden under a skirt and angled slightly to the left, with one large muscular foot tucked under the other. If she were standing, she would be ten and a half feet tall.

She is Gaia. The goddess. Mother Earth. Nurturer and giver of life. And, in the creative vision of sculptor Connie Butler, a vessel of strength, both feminine and masculine. Measuring 6 X 4’6” X 3’4”, she is also one of the largest and heaviest pieces in the permanent visual arts collection at LBC. Connie Butler was a prolific artist and well-respected sculptor, working with alabaster, soapstone, clay, and black walnut. She died a year ago, at age 86, on March 24, 2022.

According to Laura Anderson, Connie’s daughter, sometime in the mid-1980s, CalTrans was taking out giant black walnut trees along Highway 12, west of Sugarloaf Mountain in Kenwood. Connie, who cherished the area for its indigenous history, found out, and soon several of the cut trees were delivered to her home nearby.

“My mother’s absolute gift as an artist was that she could look at a piece of wood and feel what was inside, waiting. For her, sculpting started with that feeling, and then it was a matter of removing the excess. Gaia was inside that tree, waiting to emerge.” Connie completed Gaia in 1989.


Gaia with Connie Butler’s granddaughters.

Meeting the Goddess

In Greek Mythology, Gaia is the primordial deity that represents the ancestral mother of all life. To Connie Butler, her Gaia, the sculpture, represented connection to the Earth, and from that, strength and soul, according to Laura. Connie’s granddaughters, Ashley Anderson, and her twin sister, Erika Anderson, an artist and studio manager in London, were five years old when Connie was working on the sculpture. They recalled everyone referring to it as “the goddess.”

“We are a family of strong, dynamic women,” said Ashley, in reflecting on her grandmother’s influence and presence in the family. Erika, who was inspired by Connie to pursue an art history degree, added, “What I love about this piece is that it communicates the strength of women, and it is not trying to be beautiful in the way we think of beauty now.”

“My grandmother was small, maybe 5’5”, but with strong hands. The sheer physicality of a female woodworker to have the confidence to work on a piece that size as well as the physical ability to complete it is astounding,” said Erika. Yet physical strength is only half the story.

Born in Alberta, Canada, on December 1, 1936, Connie earned a B.A. in Applied Arts at UCLA, where she met William Richard Butler, who was studying law. She earned a master’s degree in Fine Art at Cal State Long Beach. They raised their four children in Ukiah, CA, and in the early 1970s, their son, Grant, was killed in an accident.

“That was a punctuating moment in her life and the axis around which her life spun afterward,” said Erika. “She always needed art to live and breathe, but then it became her way of processing her grief. That shift pulled her spirituality into it. By the time she began working on Gaia, she had processed a lot.”


Connie Butler pictured with Gaia

Connie studied Carl Jung and went through years of Jungian analysis. According to Erika, she explored spirituality, tarot, astrology, dream interpretation, and I Ching. “She journaled religiously every day, mostly about her dreams, many of which turned into bodies of work that spanned illustration, painting, and writing. For her, Gaia was a symbol of coming through.”

According to Gilhem Erickson, a Sonoma Valley artist known for his stone, wood, and architectural sculpture, Connie valued the influences of Käthe Kollwitz, an early 20th century sculptor who also employed themes of women and family, as well as Ernst Barlach, a German expressionist sculptor who was a contemporary of Kollwitz. Notably, Kollwitz also wrestled with the loss of a son and used sculpture to give expression to her mourning.

“A lot of her inspiration in technique came from the late Otto Hitzberger,” said Ashley. A wood carver who came over from Germany to escape the war, Hitzberger worked on large pieces, using hand tools – a mallet and chisel, rasping, and sanding – not power tools.

“Connie believed in the redeeming aspect of art, said Gilhem. “She had an earnestness to share her values with the community. It was what she had to give to the world. She gave away a great deal of her works.”

According to Erika, “Generosity of spirit, the importance of community, and giving children access to creativity underpinned everything for her,” which makes it all the more fitting that Gaia found a home at LBC. As Sonoma County’s home for the arts, LBC was founded on the idea that a strong community is one where the arts and arts education is accessible to all.

“You have the goddess carved by the patron saint of access, creativity, and community,” said Erika.

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