Behind the scenes at the butter sculpture contest: Royal Winter Fair

by JOSEF JACOBSON

NOVEMBER 13, 2009

At the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, butter isn’t just something you smear on your toast, it’s an art form.

Every year at The Royal students from arts colleges are invited to put their skills to the test in the Royal Butter Sculpture Competition.  Armed with no more than a 25 kilogram block of butter and their wits, each participant is given nine hours to sculpt their masterpiece in a giant refrigerated display case in a cooler full of butter at five degrees Celsius.

This year the theme of the competition was “Celebrating Agriculture and Equine youth participation at The Royal,” and the 12 competitors were students from Toronto’s Central Technical School and the Ontario College of Art and Design.

Ever since the 1940s, the butter sculpture competition has been an annual crowd pleaser at The Royal, as people continue to create, view and judge butter sculptures.  One veteran judge who may not be returning next year is Harvey Townsend, 88.  A former teacher at the Ontario College of Art and Design and a sculptor in his own right (he once sculpted a life-size Elvis out of butter), Townsend has been judging the butter sculpture competition at The Royal since the late 1970s.

“The Ontario Ministry of Butter and Cheese and all those sorts of things came to ask me what I thought about students doing butter sculptures, and I thought it was a good idea,” he said.  “It started from there and carried on pretty traditionally for over thirty years.”

So what exactly does one look for in a prize winning butter sculpture?

“Well you look for the humour and knowledge that they have of the subject,” explained Townsend.  “It seems to be based on the horse this year so what we’ve taken into consideration is how well it’s done.  Fine detail is very difficult (to achieve) in just a day’s work.

Townsend allows his gut to have the final say in determining a winner.

“ It all comes with your own experience,” he said.

It is not uncommon for butter sculptors to have trouble creating their pieces.  Due to its high melting point, butter can be a very difficult art medium to work with.

“We have had some (sculptures) that haven’t been judged because structurally they’ve fallen down,” admitted Sally Andrews, an official at the agricultural show office who also sits on the dairy products competition committee.  She explained that whenever a piece of art becomes damaged, the artist is contacted and permitted to make emergency repairs on their submission after hours.

This year a sculpture called “Horse Face” collapsed. The piece, which was one of Andrews’ favourites, featured a horse’s head with the face of its rider grafted upon its snout.

“Because butter isn’t a stable product some of the face fell off, and so [the artist] had to come in late at night and tap away in the cooler by himself,” Andrews said.

Sadly, the lifespan of a butter sculpture is limited by the length of the competition.  After the winners have gone home with their prizes and the lights have been turned off, the greasy works of art are dismantled, and the raw butter re-enters the butter circle of life.

“We try to find people who can use it,” explained Andrews.  “Just like plastic can be rendered into tiles … [butter] is re-rendered into a non-edible product, so fuels, things like that.  Whatever they can use it for.”

The butter used for the competition was never meant for human consumption.

This year’s winner is Tisha Myles, 23, an arts student from Central Technical School.  Her entry is called “Tandem Bikeroo,” which depicts two children wearing a horse costume riding a bicycle built for two.  She will receive the grand prize of $200 dollars, which should  buy her enough butter to keep her busy until next year.

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