+ By Terese Schlachter + Photos by Allison Butterfield
Consider the miraculous symbolism of water. Poseidon used it to churn some wrath upon those whom he found offensive; John the Baptist used it to save souls. It’s even been a lead character in classic movies such as Singin’ in the Rain, Jaws, and Cocoon. Water consumption is linked to better physical and mental health. Some people find that simply sitting seaside has a calming effect.
It’s been in perhaps the most turbulent times of Allison Butterfield’s life that she leaned into her art, which mostly depicts water. “After college, I was lost. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” she says. “I wasn’t living the healthiest lifestyle. I was in this chaos where you’re trying to figure out who you are but not wanting to let go of friends. There have been low points where you have that one thing you can do and feel good about.”
In such times, she would turn to her acrylics. Painting has always been second nature for Butterfield. It’s more therapy than religion, more compulsion than obsession. “It’s so therapeutic to shut everything off and create,” she says. “I’ll sit for as long as I have to, to get one little crest of wave the way I want it. It’s so rewarding.”
It’s rewarding for observers, too. Standing in front of a particularly frothy ocean scene can evoke feelings of possibly getting splashed. Mysterious sea turtles gaze straight out from clear Caribbean waters. Butterfield enjoys the challenge of capturing something in motion. Roads wind, suns set, surfs glisten. Her bedroom/studio is awash with barrel waves, smooth swells, and the occasional fluttering palm tree. Most of her paintings are re-created from photographs that she snapped as she traveled around the British Virgin Islands and the Bahamas. Some are the product of her Canon camera, others from a GoPro that she manages to balance while snorkeling with fish, coral, and the occasional octopus. A surfboard hangs on one wall. “I’ve had it out all of three times.” She laughs. It’s part of her life plan.
“I spent a lot of time growing up near the ocean. My family had a house in Bethany Beach—that’s where I formed a lot of core memories,” she says. As a child, she was always inclined to draw or paint. She took art classes through high school but is otherwise self-taught. Her talent, she believes, comes from a higher power.
When, a few years ago, she decided to get more serious about her art, she did the same with her faith, and since then, they’ve been interwoven. “He must increase but I must decrease,” says Butterfield, quoting John 3:30. The sheer power of the sea constantly humbles her. “However important I think my life or problems are in that moment,” she says, “standing in front of the ocean, I’m reminded that there’s something so much bigger than myself. It’s hard not to then immediately think of God’s importance in my life.”
Back at the easel, Butterfield’s process always begins with a background that looks like an abstract, with one-dimensional colors smearing across the canvas. Then come the shadows. Soon, shapes begin to form. The artist’s observation skills are key; where the untrained eye might see a vast ocean, Butterfield sees hundreds of shades, curves, peaks, and pinpoints of light, all of which, in the end, meld together to create that air of realism.
Realism art took form in the mid-1800s. The details are accurate, the subject matter unembellished. By the 1970s, it was referred to as photographic art, focusing on everyday life. Butterfield focuses on everyday sea life. There are some landscapes. But nature’s life-giving miracle, water, seeps into nearly every crevasse, whether it’s a cascading waterfall sweeping between majestic rock formations or the mere suggestion: a surfboard atop an old Ford Bronco.
For all of her connection to liquid, part of Butterfield’s spiritual art journey includes a decision to be alcohol free. She’s been nearly two years sober. “It gave me so much life back,” she says. “It improved my mental health, faith, spiritual health—all of those things work together for me to exist well and paint well.”
Butterfield has a nine-to-five job at her church. She has local family, she travels, she regularly attends Bible study. It can be difficult to find a few moments to turn off the world and pick up a paintbrush. But on Fridays, one of her days off from work, she puts her phone in airplane mode and paints the day away.
A single drop of water is said to contain a microcosm of thousands of tiny organisms—bacteria, algae, whatnot—and may start ripples or a wave motion. Butterfield’s ripple may have begun three years ago, at a camp in a place often defined by its lack of water, the Middle East. She was on a mission trip that took her to Tyre, a city in Lebanon, which is mostly surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. Almost every minute, though, was spent inland, with Syrian civil war refugees who had settled in camps there. Thousands of people needed humanitarian assistance. Butterfield and her crew provided support; they worked with women and some teenagers to paint a mural depicting the students’ dreams of the future. Most created images of their homes, schools, and children. Others in the mission group provided information on how to recognize and report human trafficking. Some instructed groups in other crafts, and others spent time with the children so their mothers could attend the classes.
“It was very impactful for me,” Butterfield recalls of that experience. “I got to see how I could use art as a tool for people to process some of their trauma.” She now donates 20 percent of her profits to Heart for Refugees, a Maryland nonprofit that serves local Afghan refugees who are working to establish lives in the United States. The Syrian mission is far from over, and Butterfield is headed back to Lebanon soon. This time, they’ll work out of a new trauma center created for therapeutic activities.
Butterfield is, herself, a droplet.
Back in Maryland, she paints prolifically. She stays current on social media, creating time-lapse videos of her process for Instagram and putting together playlists to paint by. It’s a way of staying competitive. “Now, you have to be a photographer, artist, marketer, and you have that added layer of social media. It’s so much more of an effort to create content and videos of your painting,” she says. But she remains focused. “I try to keep the process as pure as possible. For me, the more I grow in my ability to paint and the joy I experience in creating, the more I recognize both as gifts from God to be used for the benefit of others.”
For more information, visit allisonvirginia.com.