Sculptors find worldwide fame turning 1,000 pounds of butter into art

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TIM TAI/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — Art is often permanent, hung on museum walls for centuries, or cast in bronze and erected outdoors to face the elements and the changing tide of history. The art Jim Victor and Marie Pelton make is transitory and delicious over lobster.

The Conshohocken, Pa., couple have worked with chocolate, cheese, and ice, but butter’s brought them worldwide acclaim. Together, they have created large butter sculptures for agricultural shows and fairs all over the country, including most of the Pennsylvania Farm Shows since the mid-’90s. This month, the couple unveiled the 52nd annual American Dairy Association North East butter sculpture at the virtual New York State Fair, an 800-pound pandemic-theme piece — including children remote-learning and a masked milkman — that took them 10 days to create.

Few of their pieces last very long, though one chocolate Statue of Liberty has stood in Las Vegas since 2014.

“The food sculptures we do live on in photographs and pictures, and that’s how we document them,” Pelton said.

There’s no official word on whether Pennsylvania’s 105th annual Farm Show, which is going virtual in January, will feature a butter sculpture, but it’s often a must-see for attendees taking selfies. Last year’s butter sculpture featured mascots from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, including Gritty, the bizarre and beloved symbol of the Flyers and perhaps the city itself. They spent about 10 days sculpting it.

For the January Farm Show, “they haven’t made a formal announcement, but we think it’s definitely going to be a go,” Pelton said.

Butter is not what Victor, 75, and Pelton, 55, were envisioning when they attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on North Broad Street. Marble, clay, and stone have been the standard sculpting mediums for millennia, and they both have worked with those traditional materials, along with 50-pound blocks of butter.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the couple sat beside each other in a pen on a West Chester farm, sculpting horse miniatures in clay with their fingers and wooden tools. Wruben, Pelton’s Dutch Warmblood horse, sniffed the clay from time to time. The couple sculpt Wruben and other farm animals to sharpen their skills, but they also have contemplated teaching classes in sculpting, both online and in person.

“Especially during this pandemic time period where our business has completely stalled, we were thinking what could we do to change up our business,” Pelton said. “It’s typically something you would find in culinary schools, and we’re not chefs.”

Pelton and Victor have seen the merging of art and food grow over the last decade, particularly on cable television, where shows about elaborate cakes, baking competitions, and chef challenges have become wildly popular. They may have something in the works themselves, but said they’re required to keep mum about it.

Sculpting with butter, done on site, has unique pros and cons, Victor said. At the Farm Show, the sculpture is displayed in a refrigerated glass room, as butter is prone to melt quickly. Melting butter can make the floor slippery, and on a few occasions, when sculpting in their outdoor mobile booth, the sun has melted some sculptures, causing the pieces to slide to the floor.

Victor said the sculpting room isn’t as cold as people would think, often 65 degrees. He prefers his butter to be warmer and softer.

“That’s the beauty of it,” he said. “You can control the temperature and control the consistency of butter.”

Sculptural armatures, akin to skeletons, are usually made of aluminum wire, though for the heavier butter sculptures, steel is used. The butter is often donated by large national producers like Land O’ Lakes or Keller’s, and no, it can’t be melted and drizzled on popcorn.

“It’s waste butter we get from plants,” Pelton said. “It’s stuff that’s been extruded or cleaned out, or stuff that’s been damaged, or generally can’t be sold to the public.”

Afterward, the butter is donated to farms that have an anaerobic digester, which breaks down organic material and turns it into a fuel.

“Actually, 1,000 pounds of butter can turn into 80 pounds of biofuel,” Pelton said.

Victor said his first food sculpture was a chocolate portrait of the actor Mickey Rooney for a Broadway play. His first Farm Show sculpture was made in 1995. Marie began working with him in 2000, though she also paints. They’ve sculpted butter on Prince Edward Island and chocolate in China, and they’ve been invited to sculpt in Australia and the United Arab Emirates.

Their largest project was a butter sculpture of Paris that weighed 2,370 pounds. It was created for last fall’s Best of France festival, organized by the French community in New York City to showcase French brands in the United States.

In terms of farm shows, Victor and Pelton said, the concept is often suggested by the dairy associations and state agricultural departments that hire them. Sometimes, people want too many features in a sculpture, and they have to tone it down.

“There has to be a focal point and it has to be interesting from all sides of the sculpture,” Pelton said.

In 2020, they said, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman pushed hard for Gritty. Fetterman said it was an honor to unveil the buttery Gritty.

The husband-and-wife duo declined to say how much they earn for an 800-pound butter sculpture. Victor said it’s more than the $5,000 he was paid for his first Farm Show piece 25 years ago. Art is their main source of income, and they try to take on at least 10 projects a year, most of them during the “butter season” of summer and early fall, when most of the fairs are scheduled.

Victor said some foods are easier to sculpt than others, but he’s always up for a challenge, as long as it not’s soup.

“I think anything is possible, but some things are just more difficult,” he said. “Ice cream would be tough, because it has to be so cold. If you tried to do hummus, I don’t think it would work. Peanut butter, maybe.”

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