By Jeff Falk
It’s sweet, creamy and delicious.
It’s been a dairy-generated staple for centuries.
Its consistency makes it surprisingly pliable.
Yes, nothing says Pennsylvania Farm Show like butter.
The 2020 Farm Show is set to open on January 2 at 2300 Cameron Street in Harrisburg, in the same way it has in recent memory—with a 9:30 a.m. ceremonial unveiling of the butter sculpture. For the past 17 years, the farm show’s butter sculpture has been the creative collaboration of Jim Victor and Marie Pelton, a Philadelphia-based married couple who look at butter in a completely different way.
“We think of butter sculptures as a sculpture, first and foremost,” says Pelton. “The composition is very important. We always make sure it’s interesting, as close to a piece of art as we can make it. Making sure you have something interesting to work on, that’s very important,” she says.
“It’s rewarding when people like it, and you sense it’s a popular attraction,” adds Victor. “The thing I’m most interested in is that it’s a medium I never thought I’d get involved in. It’s become more important as a medium. It’s reached the fine art end of the world.”
The 104th edition of the Pennsylvania Farm Show, the largest indoor agricultural event in the country, will be staged from January 4-11 at the Farm Show Complex. Dating back more than 50 years, the presentation of the American Dairy Association Northeast’s life-sized butter sculpture has become one of the Farm Show’s most anticipated highlights.
To build anticipation, the subject of each year’s butter sculpture is designed to reflect the farm show’s overall them, and the theme is not revealed until the unveiling.
“We can’t tell you what it is,” says Victor. “It’s sports related. That’s as much as I can give you. It gets people excited about the whole thing.”
“It’s very special to both of us,” adds Pelton. “To me, the farm show is like our state fair. It’s something people have come to love. People tell us how much they look forward to seeing the butter sculpture.”
Over the years, Pelton and Victor have brought to life – through a thousand pounds of butter – such farm show themes as “The 100th Anniversary of the Pennsylvania Farm Show ‘water quality in Pennsylvania,” “the stewardship of Pennsylvania’s land,” “Play 60 sports participation,” and “Pennsylvania Preferred products.” Each has presented its own different set of challenges, but Victor and Pelton have pulled it off by combining their unique individual talents.
“The collaboration is really rewarding,” says Pelton. “It makes it more possible for us to do more. If it was only one person, it would only be half of what it is. What you include and don’t include is important, and how the figure is related is important. Finishing the job is important in itself. It really is a daily grind. It’s a lot of hard work.”
“It’s something we always look forward to,” adds Victor. “It has special meaning to me, because I grew up in Harrisburg. Back in the day, when I first started doing them, I was doing it for myself. But that can only take it so far. Now we do it with an audience in mind.”
Pelton and Victor’s creation of the farm show butter sculpture is a long and tedious process, one that requires about two weeks to complete – 14 days in and around the Christmas-New Year holiday. First, the American Dairy Association Northeast presents Victor and Pelton with that year’s theme, then they respond with a proposed drawing that reflects the theme.
Once Pelton and Victor’s conceptual interpretation is approved, they use welded steel to create stick figures or “skeltons” which will come to represent the figures in their sculpture. After the stick figures are covered with mesh, it is at that point where the half-ton of butter comes into play.
“It’s supposed to be popular art, entertainment in a sense,” says Victor. “It’s our living. It’s our profession. But it’s also something we take pride in.”
“Once we get the approval, then it’s just a matter of getting the job done,” adds Pelton. “It depends on the scale, how much space you have to work with. The butter booth at the farm show is very roomy. Life-sized figures is the rule of thumb. The farm show butter sculpture is the biggest sculpture we do each year.”
It was sculpting, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which first brought Pelton and Victor together, and in 2003 they were married. In addition to butter, Victor and Pelton also sculpt with chocolate, cheese, fruits, vegetables and get this one – bacon.
It is a shared passion that has enriched their personal relationship.
“With butter sculptures, you have to have a reputation,” says Pelton. “It’s kind of like folk art. We treat it like art. We try to give it all of our attention, even though it’s a non-traditional material. It’s temporary. It’s not going to last forever. But some of the work we’ve done lives on in pictures.”
“When you do chocolate and you do butter, cheese is never far behind,” says Victor. “There are so many corporate clients who want these products. I don’t know anyone who does the variety we do. But we do know other butter sculpturers.”
The concept of food sculpting was initially documented in the 1500s, but may have originally evolved in prehistoric times. At the beginning of 20th century, butter sculptures started showing up in the United States at state fairs, and it is believed that Pennsylvania began incorporating them into its farm show in the 1960s.
“It was to show the harvest, how the production of food here is so important,” says Victor. “During World War I, many of the traditions stopped. You couldn’t get butter during the second world war. But it became a promotion for the dairy industry.
“Actually, butter is a good art medium to work with,” continues Victor. “The first butter sculpture I ever saw was in a book, and I remember what impressed me was the glowing quality of it. It’s very attractive.”
“We definitely love butter,” says Pelton. “It tastes wonderful. But when we’re sculpting with it, we think of it as an art medium. It’s very responsive for what we to do with it.
No one “cooks” with butter like Pelton and Victor.