This week, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair celebrates 90 years of carriage races, performing pups, and the time-honoured tradition of butter sculpting. So how exactly does one get involved in the dairy arts? We spoke with the creator of the Rob Ford butter sculpture—a three-time blue-ribbon winner and judge in this year’s competition—to find out.
Who’s your goat friend?
He usually lives with my parents on their hobby farm in the Niagara region. His name is Le Roi [pronounced Leroy]. My parents came up with the name. I can’t say why, though. It’s a secret.
Really? So it’s not bad, bad Leroy Brown?
No. I used to sing that song to him when he was a baby, though, and my father would scold me saying that I was going to influence him in a bad way.
Did you grow up on a farm? Is that part of what led you to butter sculpting?
No, actually, I grew up in Hamilton. My parents only moved to a farm when I moved to Toronto to go to OCAD, which was about six years ago. I do spend quite a bit of time there—about a week out of every month. I grew up going to the Royal Winter Fair, so I was aware of the butter sculpting competitions. Later, I did sculpture and installation at school, so that’s sort of how I ended up participating. I think the novelty appealed to me.
Is there a community of butter sculptors? Do you guys get together outside of the competitive circuit?
No. The first rule of butter sculpting is don’t talk about butter. Seriously, though, as far as I know, all of the people who do it are artists who just do this as something on the side. At least here in Canada. I think in the States they tend to take their butter sculpting more seriously.
Other than the possible prize money, what do you like about it?
A lot of the commercial sculpting I do involves working with toxic materials on a daily basis, so getting the chance to work with something edible is a nice break.
Like a butter breather?
Are there other key differences between sculpting with butter and using a more typical material like clay?
There aren’t many. The two materials are quite similar, other than the fact that the state of clay is manipulated by humidity, whereas the state of butter is manipulated by temperature. That means that butter sculpting is done in a big fridge, which definitely adds to the novelty factor, particularly if it’s the middle of the summer and you have all of these butter sculptors bundled up, which was the case this summer at the CNE.
Speaking of the Ex, you got a lot of attention for the butter Rob Ford sculpture that you made there. Are most butter sculptors so political?
I would say no. It’s generally not about making a statement, but in that case it was sort of an opportunity that presented itself at the time—Rob Ford just had to be made in butter. He had to.
Were you surprised that the mayor received the piece so positively, considering you depicted him reading Margaret Atwood and leaning on a steering wheel? He called you “a real talent.”
I think Rob Ford is the kind of guy who can poke fun at himself. If everyone else is making fun of him already, what is he going to do? Knowing how to laugh at yourself is sort of the ultimate defence.
He’s certainly inspired a lot of resistance artwork.
I was listening to CBC Radio recently and they were talking about the U.S. election and asking callers if they had voter envy. In terms of larger-than-life, polarizing political figures, Rob Ford is right up there. He’s in the media a lot because he is an entertainer, whether you love him or hate him.
Do you tend to take on zeitgeisty subjects in your non-butter pursuits?
More and more these days, my work is reflecting my agricultural interests. Spending time on my family farm has had a big impact on me. As someone who grew up in a city, I guess I have a certain envy of that lifestyle.
On your website, I noticed a photo of an installation piece called True Patriot Love, which appears to be an oven with rows of perogies in front of it.
Right. I was raised in a heavy cultural diaspora community and I don’t really know how to get away from that. I went to Ukrainian elementary school. I understand why my elders feel the need to hold on to certain cultural traditions, but at the same time I felt frustrated that I didn’t have any symbols from my home country. The work was addressing the tendency to use adopted symbols of other homelands in a country like Canada, where we have so many different ethnic groups.
This year, you are judging the Royal Winter Fair’s butter sculpting event. What will you be looking for in the winning entry?
I’m not totally sure, since I’m not sure what it was about my pieces that made them win. I’m looking for something that works with this year’s theme [90 Years of The Royal], but also something that functions outside of that.
What about technique?
That’s not as big of a deal. I’m looking at it from more of an installation perspective since that is my background. I think it will be neat to bring a sort of fine-art perspective.
What happens to the sculptures after the fair is over? It seems like a lot of butter to waste, but I guess you can’t exactly reuse it after all that manhandling.
I don’t actually know.
Let’s just imagine it goes to butter heaven.
I’m going to ask you one more time why your goat is named Le Roi.
I still won’t say. I can’t. It’s a secret.
Butter or peanut butter?
Soup or salad?
Salt or pepper?
CNN or CBC?
Ballet or opera?
Must see TV?
Who’s the Boss?