Judging Butter sculptures a passion for 88 year old at the Royal Winter Fair

by Kilian Bugayong

November 18, 2009

Harvey Townsend leaned on his walker Thursday while masses of eager visitors bustled haphazardly past him, towards the President’s Choice SuperDogs show. Despite his surroundings, the wizened 88-year-old was not fazed by the buzzing sound of their voices nor their dizzying movements, as he looked through the window of the refrigerated room that held the sculptures of butter.

Butter sculpting has been a popular exhibit at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair since Ross Butler created the first sculpture in the late 1940s. However, for Townsend, it means much more, it is a passion, albeit one that he says, might come to an end by the conclusion of this year’s competition.

“This will probably be my last year taking part, but it’s been pleasurable,” said Townsend softly, his age reflected in his thick British accent.  “I’ve enjoyed coming down [for the butter sculpting competition].”

Originally a mold maker from Birmingham, England, Townsend moved to Canada in 1953, bringing with him his craft, as well as his appreciation for butter sculpting.  However it was not until many years later, while teaching mold making at the Ontario College of Art and Design, that he began judging butter sculptures at the fair.

“The Ontario Ministry of Butter and Cheese came to ask me what I thought about students doing the butter sculpture, and I thought it was a good idea, and it started from there and carried out pretty traditionally for over 30 years,” Townsend said.  “It must have been in the late 1970s because there were a lot of erotic sculptures going around and there were one or two pieces that we had to hide because it is a family show.”

With his experience as both a judge, and as a sculptor in the butter sculpting contest, Townsend has developed an eye for winning sculptures, an insight that is unaffected by the surgery he underwent on his right eye recently.  While there may be formal criteria to judge the sculptures, Townsend also focuses on two main aspects of the figure.

“Well, you look for the humour and knowledge that they have of the subject, and it seems to be based on the horse this year,” said Townsend, with a glance at the refrigerated butter sculptures. “What we’ve also taken into consideration is how well it’s done.”

With only 10 hours to complete their sculptures, the good news for the student entries in the competition is that intricate details are not particularly imperative to winning the contest.

“Finishing is much better, and some of [the competitors] have difficulty in the subject or with the butter,” Townsend said. “It’s hard to say, it’s sort of a gut instinct of what is good and what is bad; it all comes with your own experience. Each of us has different walks of life, and they come with different ideas.”

Sally Andrews who works in the fair’s office, and who is also on the dairy products competition and horticulture committee, knows all too well about “different ideas.”

(Listen to an interview with Sally Andrews here.)

In 2008, the contest had an entry reminiscent of the erotic sculptures from the 1970s that Townsend mentioned.

“Last year we did have a sculpture where the girl who did it, took it very seriously,” said Andrews, as she tried to find the words to best describe the sculpture.  “She was addressing her thoughts and collective fear of changing genes, where the subject matter she chose is one area that never happens, which is in the porn industry.”

Although the sculpture had a controversial theme, it was still able to win the humour award.  However it did prompt a new rule for the 87th annual agricultural fair. This year’s competitors were required to research their intended messages in order to prevent any misunderstandings with their sculptures.  Consequently, there was no need to hide any sculptures in the fair this year.

The only controversy surrounding this year’s competition was the emergency repair of the sculpture entitled “Horse Face” after it partially collapsed.

Back at the refrigerated butter booth, Townsend sat on the seat of his walker among the other judges, still silent, as they deliberated.  He held his chin as he studied the figures, their message and their contours. His furled brow was prominent as he looked at a sculpture of two figures dressed in a horse costume, seated on a tandem bike.  Not even the loud rush of satisfied viewers leaving President’s Choice SuperDogs show broke his concentration.  Rather, Townsend sat, dedicated to judging the sculptures of butter, most likely for the final time.