June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

MICHELANGELO HAD THE SISTINE Chapel, Marc Chagall the Paris Opera House. On this gray day in Prior Lake, Minn., Gary Butzer is making his mark on two sides of Wally Wixon’s horse barn. “In museums you find artists who paint unusual things on ordinary canvas,” says Butzer, adjusting his beret and surveying his giant tableau of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Trigger and Gabby Hayes. “I’m out here in the country painting ordinary things on unusual canvases.”

Southern Minnesota is dotted with some 200 of the 52-year-old artist’s murals, which depict everything from Alice in Wonderland-size rabbits to giant horses and, on a grain silo outside Butzer’s hometown of Morton, a 25-foot-tall cardinal (the bird, not the prelate). “It’s impressionism, like you see in a Monet, but done on a very big scale,” says Butzer, who views his mission as bringing culture to the masses. “With paintings on barns, stables and grain bins, people are exposed to art without even realizing it. It becomes part of their lives.”

Butzer finds no shortage of farmers wanting to brighten up their barnyards, although some are a little fuzzy on aesthetics. “Sometimes people just say ‘cow’ when I ask them what they want,” he says. “I remind them of grass, maybe a fence. Before you know it, we have a complete mural in mind.” Wixon, for one, knew just what he wanted when he commissioned the homage to Roy Rogers, and $1,500 later he couldn’t be more pleased if Picasso had done the work. “I rode a lot of miles with those guys,” says Wixon of his childhood TV companions. “Now I can ride with them every day.”

The youngest of five children born to a Morton builder and his hospital-technician wife, Butzer first began enhancing the local landscape in 1985. After attending the University of Minnesota, he painted watercolors and portraits in various cities but decided to move back in with his mother after his dad died and his marriage to a fellow artist fell apart. Butzer set up a studio in his mother’s garage, painted his first outdoor mural—a deer-and-pheasant landscape on the side of the garage—and has been earning a decent living, averaging a few thousand dollars a pop, ever since. To make the most of the short painting season, he enlists volunteers—as many as 100 at a time, no experience necessary—to help with larger works. “They can follow my sketch,” he says. “In a way, it’s like a coloring book.”

Butzer’s enthusiasm appears to be catching. Last winter 74-year-old Paul Forsyth, a retired Morton dairy farmer who owns three Butzer murals (including one of his favorite cow, Black Baldey), decided to take up the brush himself. “It’s just painting by numbers—small wildlifes,” he says. “But it’s not as easy as it sounds.” His mentor is behind him all the way. “Everyone is an artist of one kind or another,” Butzer says. “You just have to find your gift.”

CURTIS RIST

MARGARET NELSON in Morton

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