Veteran judge to retire from Butter Sculpture competition at the Royal Winter Fair

by Sarina Adamo

November 19, 2009

For more than the thirtieth time in his life, he came prepared with his walker, his wife and his knowledge of the art of butter sculpting.  Harvey Townsend, a former art teacher at the Ontario College of Art and Design, 88, is a valued judge of one of the oldest competitions at the Royal Winter Fair.

The 87th Royal Agricultural Winter Fair wrapped up this weekend after a week of festivities including the Royal Horse Show, the President’s Choice® SuperDogs show, and the famous butter sculpting competition.  Twelve students from both Ontario College of Art and Design and Central Technical School entered the contest.  Their task was to sculpt creations using 25 kilograms of butter per sculpture.

After moving to Toronto from Birmingham, England in 1953, Townsend became involved with the art of butter sculpting in the late 70’s when the creations, as he remembers them, were “erotic”.  His knowledge in mold-making and sculpting provided the qualifications needed to judge the creations.

“They came to ask me what I thought; if I had students doing the butter sculpture and I thought it was a good idea.  So it started from there and it’s carried on pretty traditionally for over thirty years,” Townsend explained on Thursday afternoon, shortly before deliberating with his fellow judges Katie Berggren and Inese Dzenis to select three of the best sculptures from the twelve contestants.

“It started at OCAD.  I tried to get other colleges involved but not many of them were interested.  I tried George Brown (College); they didn’t know what I was talking about,”  Townsend grinned as he explained his difficulties with having art focused schools enter this unusual competition.

However, the sculptures are judged in categories other than just the artistic.

“We look for the humour and the knowledge that they have on the subject and it seems this year to be based on the horse,”  Townsend explained.

This year, student artist Tisha Myles from Central Technical School won first place with her sculpture titled “Tandem Bikeroo” illustrating a horse using four legs and human-like hands to ride a bicycle.

“We did recommend that all our artists look into what they were doing,” said Sally Andrews, a member of the fair’s dairy products competition committee after Myles’ victory was announced.  “So there were no disappointments, which I don’t think there were this year.”

(Listen to the audio interview with Sally Andrews here.)

Some of the other interesting sculptures included a horse’s head with a life like face embellished on its nose, a child mounting onto the back of the horse and an entire stable with horses positioned around it.  However, these fairly large sculptures seem small to the judges, in comparison to what the fair has seen in the past.

“Harvey is one of the original butter sculptors here.  He did life-size animals,” Andrews explained.

Although the subject of the sculptures had always been agriculture, Townsend once carved a life-size butter version of Elvis.  He also took his talents to Brazil forming various butter creations with other sculptors and artists.

“He was a fantastic craftsman.  He had the skill that not many people have,” said David Paolini, a high school art teacher and former student of Townsend. The two still remain in contact after many years.

“I called Harvey three or four weeks ago about a technical problem I had with a mold [and] he was right there with all the answers I needed,”  Paolini said.

Despite his long standing commitment to the fair Townsend claims this year to be his last.  Although he will be missed on the panel of judges Townsend noted that the experience has “been pleasurable.”