Segment from Finding Americana

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Botticelli

Ed gets greasy with the history of butter sculpting. He talks with artist Ken Robison about making a steer, penguins, Super Mario and more out of butter for the State Fair of Texas.


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Speaker 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Nathan Connolly: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory. Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Nathan Connolly.

Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers.

Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh.

Nathan Connolly: If you’re new to the podcast, we and Joanne Freeman are all historians and each week we explore a different aspect of American history. Today, in this special holiday show, we’ll be looking at Americana.

Ed Ayers: I’ll be getting my fingers greasy with some butter sculpture.

Brian Balogh: I’ll be finding out about the miniature version of the US of A in Pennsylvania that’s been entertaining visitors for more than a half a century.

Nathan Connolly: And, we’ll be revisiting the story of whales on a train. Man, I love this show.

Ed Ayers: Brian, Nathan, did your parents ever tell you, “Hey, don’t play with the food?”

Brian Balogh: All the time.

Nathan Connolly: I guess, yeah.

Ed Ayers: Do you think they’d feel differently if you didn’t just play with it but maybe made it into art?

Brian Balogh: My parents would’ve loved that, especially if I could have sculpted it into a musical instrument.

Ed Ayers: How about you, Nathan?

Nathan Connolly: I’d have still been in trouble. Yeah, no.

Ed Ayers: People have been crafting food into artistic delicacies for centuries. If you were in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries and went to a big, fancy banquet, you might see sculptures made out of cakes, pudding, and even butter.

Brian Balogh: Wait a second, I’m pretty sure they didn’t have refrigerators back in the 17th century. Didn’t it melt?

Ed Ayers: It did. You’d need to look at it quickly and what it was mainly used for was to impress your dinner guests before a feast. Somebody kept it together long enough to make a sculpture out of it. But by the late 19th century, butter sculptures moved from the banquet halls to the fairgrounds.
This is when it started to make a real splash in the United States. I’m assuming that’s not because it was melting. Butter sculpting really took off once electric refrigeration became possible.
In 1901, a sculptor named John K. Daniels was hired by the Pan-American Exposition to sculpt an intricate model of the Minnesota State House. He used 1,000 pounds of butter to create his masterpiece and it was the earliest example of a dairy display using electrical refrigeration.
It was also the first time somebody was employed to make a butter sculpture for an international exposition. It’s two for one. This ushered in the golden age, so to speak, of butter sculpting from about 1900 to the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Nathan Connolly: A state house made of butter. That’s a good home for a bunch of greasy politicians. The 1930s was butter sculpting’s high watermark. Can we still see some of that going on today?

Ed Ayers: You know, you can, Nathan. You can go to state fairs across the country and see lots of it in fact. For example, at the Iowa State Fair, you can see its annual butter cow.

Nathan Connolly: Annual. As in every year?

Ed Ayers: Yep. Fair’s had a cow made entirely of butter for 107 years.

Brian Balogh: It better not be the same one every year.

Ed Ayers: It’s not. But, according to the Iowa State Fair, much of the butter is recycled each year and can even be used for up to a decade. But, butter sculptures can be found outside of just Iowa and if you go to the state fair of Texas, you can see the works of artist Ken Robinson.
He’s created butter sculpture for the fair since 2016 and I talked with Ken about his craft and how he got into this unconventional art form.

Ken: Well, I kinda slid in accidentally.

Ed Ayers: That sounds dangerous. Are we gonna see how many butter puns we can work in? Is this maybe starting now?

Ken: Well, you butter watch out.

Ed Ayers: Oh, God.

Ken: No, what happened was I did a lot of work for the state fair of Texas and they asked me to do it and since I had never done a butter sculpture, I had no idea what it was like and I accepted the job.
Had I ever done anything in advance, I would not have accepted the job because it’s a difficult medium to sculpt in.

Ed Ayers: Is butter the hardest thing you’ve sculpted?

Ken: It is a difficult medium because it’s not stable. If refrigerator unit gets a little warm, it begins to get soft and it makes it impossible to work. If it gets a little cool, it begins to get hard and it’s difficult to work. You just never know where you are and the unit that they have at our state fair is old like me and obviously they don’t intend to replace it anytime soon, hopefully like me.

Ed Ayers: So the others can benefit from your experience, take us through the steps of how you would make a butter sculpture. What do you do?

Ken: Well, the first time that I did this, that was 2016. They asked me to recreate the steer that had won grand champions for 2015 and I thought that was a little odd because usually when you’re talking about a butter sculpture, you have a cow with utters, that kinda thing.
They want a steer. I added to that sculpture two penguins. Now, the steer when I did it, I have an armature inside of it which holds it up in place because butter is unusual. If you’ve got 50 pounds of butter hanging off his head or an arm or an ear or whatever, it’ll just fall right off. You have to put an armature in.
But the two penguins I put in, I made them completely out of butter and all I did was take one of the large butter blocks and carve the penguin out of it, so there’s several ways to go about it. You just have to figure out, anytime you have a nose sticking out or an arm sticking out, you’re gonna have to have something there to support that.

Ed Ayers: What were those penguins doing there with that steer?

Ken: Well, it’s a steer for instance. I have one penguin standing at the front looking up at the steer’s head and my thought is the penguin has a query. What’s a steer doing in a refrigerator? Penguins should belong there, butter should belong there, what’s a steer doing there?

Ed Ayers: How long does it take you to do that?

Ken: Well, generally, it depends on the stuff that I’m doing. This last year was the toughest of all because I had to make the butter sculpture look like it was metal gears and circuitry which are all smooth things and butter, it goes much better with organic stuff like people’s faces or animals or something because it has a roughness to it.

Ed Ayers: Why were you making it look like gears?

Ken: Well, it was called Big Tex but it’s the face of a guy. We have here at the state fair of Texas a big statue. It’s not a statue, it’s more of an automaton and he says “Howdy, folks!” And “It’s the State Fair of Texas!” That kind of stuff and he waves to them.
He’s like 60 foot tall or something like that. What I did is I did just the head and I made it almost 40 inches, 48 inches wide and what I did is I took all of the electronic parts that appeared in the rest of his bust and I had the head floating by the way. We call that hover butter here in Texas.
He was floating and I put a box off to one side and I put Mario Brothers in the box and he’s throwing stuff out onto the floor that looks like all these electronics and gears and stars and everything. He’s throwing it out on the floor because obviously he’s going to assemble or he is currently assembling this thing.
Of course, the Mario is the quirk this year for the kids to find and I stood out in front of the butter sculpture and they would say, “Mommy, mommy, look, there’s Mario!” The adults didn’t even know who it was. They couldn’t recognize it but the kids all recognized it.

Ed Ayers: As Ken said, he had his hands full with this year’s mechanical Big Tex. That’s because even though butter might be smooth on toast, there’s a certain roughness to it when you’re using it for sculpting. Therefore, butter works better when making molds of things that look natural like people.
Over the years, artists have created sculptures of historical icons from Elvis Presley to Barack Obama. In fact, the first well known butter sculpture was a detailed mold of a fictional princess. It was called Dreaming Ayolanthe by a woman named Carolyn Shock-Brooks.
People flocked to see it displayed at the 1876 centennial exposition in Philadelphia. The sculpture made Brooks famous and helped propel the art form’s popularity.

Speaker 6: Since an Iowa woman modeled the head of Dreaming Ayolanthe in butter at the Philadelphia centennial exposition, butter art has developed wonderfully so that now at this World’s Fair, we have whole groups of life sized statuary in butter.
Dreaming Ayolanthe was reproduced at later fairs and her features preserved by photography and it must be said, no succeeding butter sculpture approaches it in beauty. The Iowa woman’s Ayolanthe was worthy of marble. Other and later butter figures are not always models of grace.
But, butter is butter. Graceful and ethereal as its forms may be, one would not hesitate long to slice off a nose or a finger to butter his pancakes. The Des Moines Register, August 1904.

Ed Ayers: For Carolyn Shock-Brooks, butter was not just butter. Before the centennial exposition, Brooks was a farm woman from Arkansas. She had no formal artistic training, just a couple of wooden tools for molding.
After her work was a hit at the exposition though, Brooks studied in Europe and became a professional sculptor who worked in marble. Ken Robinson has been going in the opposite direction. He’s been an artist for decades, but until a few years ago, had never dabbled in dairy.
Nevertheless, he says he’s happy to add butter to his artistic repertoire.

Ken: I’m a painter, a sculptor, a calligraphist. I’ve been called a Renaissance man. I wasn’t really sure what that was. But the reality of it is, I’ve taken on many jobs in my life without knowing how to do them and yet, I do them nevertheless.
I just get my hands dirty and go to work. I do a little bit of everything. In fact, I’m looking for something I can’t do.

Ed Ayers: That was artist Ken Robinson, the Michelangelo of milk products.

Nathan Connolly: More lik the DaVinci of dairy.

Brian Balogh: No, no, no. The Botticelli of butter.