Ken Butler’s Melodious Bones

January 19, 2021

It’s trash day. Those passing by homes and buildings glimpse unwanted items peeking out of trash carts and dumpsters: a rusty snow shovel, an old golf club, and a broken store mannequin. Most of us see worthless junk. But a gifted few see this everyday discarded trash as the melodious bones of musical instruments just waiting to be created.

Ken Butler, a talented artist, musician, and inventor, is truly the father of this craft. For over 40 years, he has been turning trash into a sometimes beautiful, sometimes wacky, and always interesting hybrid of art and music. Growing up, Butler excelled in art school and loved music, but he was told that he could not be respected in either field if he were to combine the two. Fortunately for us, Butler has had the tenacity, creativity, and intellect to prove them wrong.

Butler created his first instrument in 1978 when he discovered a rusty old hatchet in the basement of his Portland, Oregon home. At the time, he had been working on a visual art project involving what he describes as a “rather guitar-looking X-ray of a human head and backbone.” Butler believes that is why he saw the shape of a violin when he picked up the hatchet. Holding it at his neck like a violin, he found that the hatchet felt quite right.

“I hurried upstairs and was amazed to see how perfectly it fit into my violin case,” Butler reflects. “I then put two strings and two tuning pegs on it and plugged it into my guitar amp and was quite stunned that it sounded like a horrible violin.” Although he didn’t realize it at the time, that hybrid hatchet would spark the transformation of the art world, the music world, and Butler’s career, as well.

To date, Butler has created about 400 different musical instruments from found objects, including an old hockey stick, a broken snowshoe, and a taxidermied largemouth bass. “What can I say?” muses Butler, “I look at trash and see it transform into something else in my head all the time.”

Now living in Brooklyn, New York, Butler comments that the sheer density of humans living nearby makes for a spectacular assortment of trash just waiting to be made useful again. Although many artists create unique art from repurposed objects, Butler takes it to the next level by giving his art the additional purpose of creating music.

According to Butler, his work embraces the French term bricolage, which he defines as “creating a new world or dimension by reusing, reimagining, transforming, and merging found objects.”

Butler has performed on “The Tonight Show,” alongside musician Laurie Anderson, and at schools and venues throughout the world. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art displays a permanent collection of Butler’s hybrid instruments, which are the ultimate example of repurposing.

For more information and to see photos and videos of Ken Butler’s extraordinary hybrid instruments, visit his webpage.

Photo by Jesse Winter, courtesy of Ken Butler.