It is hard to imagine a time when Michael A. Butler felt reluctant to call himself an artist.
The word is loaded, he explained during a telephone interview from his home in Eastville, weighted with expectations of traditional training and technique — neither of which he has — rather than sheer will, curiosity and a mind that once found expression through colored pencils and pens.
Butler quickly graduated to paintbrushes dipped in acrylics, bringing his dreamy landscapes, turbulent seascapes and animated characters to life on canvas. His patrons and friends noted his work had grown, only continuing to evolve.
When the artist takes a step back, he can see it, too.
His brush strokes are finer and his details are sharper. His confidence, and sense of identity, is stronger. He is finally at home in his Magical Realism paintings — a term he has searched for over the decades, and finally found just in time for his one-man show, “Genesis and Transcendence,” opening Friday at the Heritage House in Sag Harbor.
“It will be a combination of older works and newer works, and people can judge for themselves, or see what they really think about my progression as an artist,” Butler said. “When I first defined myself as an artist, it was sort of a revelation for myself. I was not a youngster at that point, so it was a process. I think I was somewhat surprised at that — to find that in myself. Of course, I’ve always had an interest in painting. But to actually define myself as such was really illuminating.”
Growing up in Saint Albans, Queens, Butler was creative as a child, doodling during summer vacations on the East End with his family, whose Sag Harbor roots date back to the 1930s.
“We summered here, all summer,” he said. “I remember coming out on Scuttlehole Road, just as the sun was rising, and everything just had this — people say the light, you know, particularly artists, but that’s not why I moved out here full-time. I just remember there was a certain scent in the air, which I think is dashed as well, along with the landscape, but it was just amazingly beautiful and fresh and clean.
“The long artistic tradition here, you don’t find that everywhere. There’s such a supportive environment here, no matter what one’s theme or genre happens to be,” he continued. “You’re free to express yourself, basically. I think it’s very nurturing for people. Through the winter, it helps maintain my sanity somewhat.”
Most days, since 1987, Butler can be found painting at his dining room table in Eastville, working historical, cultural and architectural references into his creative flights of the imagination.
“Some say my work has a dreamlike quality. Several people say, ‘I’d like to live inside your head,’ or, ‘I’d like to live inside one of your paintings,’” he said with a laugh. “It makes me a little scared; I don’t want anybody inside my head, tinkering around up in there. It’s hard enough for me to know what’s going on out here. But it’s also a compliment and I’m very appreciative, really. I’m a very private person, even though I do have a public persona. To me, one paints for oneself, and not the public.”
In the mid-1980s, Butler had free time on his hands, after leaving a job in public administration with the City of New York. Most of his friends in Brooklyn were artists, and he thought, “Let me see what I can do.”
Landscapes poured from him in the months that followed, and Butler saved the drawings on a long scroll that he still looks at from time to time — finding inspiration in them even today, he said.
“I would say that was a defining moment. I was doing stuff that’s similar to what I’m doing now, but a different medium,” he said. “I was calling myself an artist then, but I really didn’t quite come to terms — and accept myself as such. Some people call themselves ‘artists’ because they fell into it, or don’t know what else to do with themselves. It wasn’t until the end of that decade that I really defined myself and accepted myself as such. And it was really liberating.
“I said, ‘That’s who and what I am.’ And other people could see what I was doing and accept that part of myself, as well,” he continued. “Still, to hear myself referred to, or introduced as, an artist, it’s really something.”
“Genesis and Transcendence,” featuring work by artist Michael A. Butler, will open with a wine and cheese reception on Friday, February 22, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Heritage House, located at 139 Hampton Street in Sag Harbor. The show will remain on view through April 21. Admission is free. For more information and availability, call (631) 725-4177 or visit eastvillehistorical.org.