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W&L Art Professor Spreads the Word About Butter Sculpture

Pamela Simpson
Pamela Simpson
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The announcement last month that the Iowa State Fair will feature a sculpture of Michael Jackson in butter brought the art of butter sculpture, long a staple of county and state fairs in the Midwest, to the fore and undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows among the uninitiated.

Butter? Sculpture? Really?

Yes, really, and Washington and Lee University art history professor Pamela Simpson has been studying the phenomenon for the past dozen years or so, even calling it her “obsession.”

“There’s a kind of campy delight in butter sculpture,” said Simpson, the Ernest Williams II Professor of Art History at W&L. “This is novelty, this is fun. Also, there’s this idea of abundance. Look at how much butter we have, that we can make these huge sculptures out of it,” she said. “Many butter sculptures have a placard that is part of the display and shows exactly how many pounds of butter was used.

“Then there’s the amazement that something we are used to seeing as little pats on our pancakes can be blown up to these gigantic proportions. Food is so fundamental to us. We’re not going to literally eat the butter sculpture but, because we know it is food, we do psychologically consume it with our eyes.”

Butter sculpture has its origins as centerpiece displays for Renaissance banquets. Eventually, in the 19th century, it moved from the table to the display case when it became a chief advertising tool of the newly-industrialized dairy industry. It was exhibited at state fairs, international expositions and at numerous national and international dairy congresses and meetings.

Although Simpson has never tried to sculpt butter herself, she knows how it’s done.

“The method for sculpting in butter is similar to that for clay modeling,” she said. “A metal or wooden armature provides a structural base and the butter is wrapped around it. Sculptors usually work within a refrigerated case.”

People always want to know what happens to the sculpture afterwards, said Simpson. “One sculptor stores the butter and re-uses it for four or five years. Sometimes it is recycled for animal feed or other manufacturing processes. I’ve even found reference to the butter being washed, re-pasteurized and sold.”

Another common question is how long the butter sculptures last.

“Some of the big international expositions can last as long as eight months,” said Simpson, “but most butter sculptures at state fairs have to be on display for only two weeks.”

The sculptors use regular butter and it’s the fat and the cold that makes it possible to sculpt. Margarine is too sticky, although Simpson said she found a reference to margarine sculpture done by a New Zealand couple. “But they make it clear that they use industrialized margarine, not the kind you buy in a store,” she said.

When asked for her favorite butter sculpture, Simpson described one at a 1924 fair outside London. “It was done by a Canadian creamery company. It was a life size equestrian image of the Prince of Wales at his Canadian ranch, complete with landscape and log cabin, all of it made out of butter. It’s pretty amazing.

“The sculptor worked on it for six weeks, and it probably had more than one sculptor working on it.
The armatures and everything else that’s underneath it would have been prepared beforehand, then shipped over to London and assembled there. It’s my absolute favorite and I think it’s incredible.”

Today, butter sculpture continues most prominently in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. In Minnesota, they elect a dairy queen called Princess Kay of the Milky Way. “Her honor is to have her portrait done in butter,” said Simpson. “The model and the sculptor are bundled up inside a revolving glass circular case that is 40 degrees inside. Outside the case an assistant takes the butter shavings, puts them on crackers and distributes them to the crowd. I’ve always thought it is the perfect case of having your art and eating it too.”

In her new study about the butter sculptures of Theodore Roosevelt, Simpson has noted that there were actually four different images of Roosevelt. “They covered his period of fame,” said Simpson. “The first one was in 1898 after the charge up San Juan Hill. The second one was a bust, created while he was the sitting president. The third, which I just love, is of him on a horse in western garb. It’s from South Dakota, where he had a ranch in the 1880s.

“The last sculpture was in 1910 at the Minnesota Fair and is of Roosevelt in safari garb. He’s holding a gun and standing on a dead lion, and all of it’s in butter. He was no longer president, but was so incredibly popular at the time, and he attended the fair, so this piece was created in his honor.”