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Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: For Jim Victor, butter is his bread

Imagine walking down the red carpet but instead of finding it lined with replicas of Oscars or Emmys, it's lined with butter sculptures! It may sound a bit far-fetched, but for husband-and-wife team Jim Victor and Marie Pelton of Conshohocken, Montgomery Co., they'd feel right at home stepping out among the creamy delights.

The internationally-known butter sculptors have been carving for 11 years at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, creating 800-pound scenarios related to the state's history of agriculture. Their 2012 butter creation is being unveiled tonight (Jan. 5) at 6 p.m., at the show's Pa. Preferred Reception with live coverage provided by the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN).

IMAGES: Butter sculptures at Pa. Farm Show

Victor and Pelton's dabbling in dairy was recognized this year by the film industry when they were asked to serve as consultants on the upcoming comedy film, "Butter," to be released March 16, 2012. The film was directed by Britain's Jim Field Smith and stars Jennifer Garner (below right), Ty Burrell and Hugh Jackman.

Victor said the film opportunity came when he and Pelton were suggested by the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association in Philadelphia, a sponsor of the butter sculpture at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. The couple got to preview "Butter" at the Philadelphia Film Festival this past October.

"It's not PG-13. It's not kid stuff," Victor said.

The screenplay, by Jason A. Micallef, is a fictional story of a husband-and-wife team (Burrell and Garner) who are butter sculptors. The husband is the number-one butter carver in Iowa and is suddenly forced out.

"It's not our life story," Victor said, laughing. "In a nutshell, the husband stops sculpting but the wife continues and enters a competition. That's the main, what happens at the competition with other female entrants."

Though the film is 'set' in Iowa, Victor was involved in filming that occurred in Shreveport, La.

When I spoke with Victor last week, he and his wife were busy at work on the butter sculpture at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Harrisburg. They began work on the project the day after Christmas on site in a temperature-controlled, refrigerated booth whose doors were closed and shades pulled. Each year, the sculptures are created in extreme secrecy until the moment of unveiling.

The theme of the sculpture comes months in advance between Victor and the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association. He then creates a small-scale, three-dimensional clay model. The next step is welded armatures, or "skeletons," constructed off-site. There are a variety of figures constructed of wire mesh, steel and wood for the structural foundation to which the butter is applied with homemade and standard modeling tools and cutters. Working temperature starts at 60 degrees.

"When we start working, the butter needs to be really soft to spread. We have large surfaces to cover," Victor explained.

The temperature is turned down to the absolute lowest of 50 degrees for carving and detail, he added.

Victor's butter subjects for past farm shows have ranged from life-sized figures of horses, children and cows, to milk wagons, school buses and even the Liberty Bell. His first sculpture for the show was in 1995, with a commemoration of the Battle of the Bulge patterned around the theme of World War II butter rations.

"We are pleased to have worked with Jim Victor for 11 years in creating the Pennsylvania Farm Show butter sculpture," said Laura England, executive vice president of communications for Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association. "Jim is a talented artist and an expert in sculpting with food. He also is a strong supporter of agriculture and is a friend to dairy farmers across the Commonwealth."

"As dairy farmers, we are proud of what we do," said Tom Croner of Somerset County, dairy farmer and chair of the Pennsylvania Dairy Promotion Program, a sponsor of the butter sculpture. "The butter sculpture is an opportunity for us to shine a spotlight on our efforts to provide nutritious, wholesome dairy foods for consumers."

The 55-pound blocks of butter used for the sculptures have been donated by Land O'Lakes in Carlisle, Pa. Once the shows are over, the sculptures are broken down and transported for recycling. The butter cannot be reused as a food product because it has been contaminated in its handling. According to England, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has made arrangements for the past few years with local companies to convert the butter from the sculpture into biodiesel fuel. For 2012, the department is working with a local dairy farmer who will convert the butter into energy through a methane digester on his farm.

Victor, who hails from Harrisburg, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He is an adjunct instructor in studio art at Rosemont College. He was working in wood back in 1995 when he answered a classified ad in a Harrisburg newspaper for a butter sculptor for the farm show. What sold show officials was his previous work as a chocolate sculptor doing portraits of personalities. In the 1970s, he was known as "the cheese wiz" for creating portraits and figures in cheese. In the 1980s, he was sculpting such celebrities as Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller in chocolate for the 1,000th performance of "Sugar Babies."

Victor called 2011 "a good year," with 2012 looking productive as well with three projects currently under way. Right after the unveiling of the butter sculpture in Harrisburg, he and his wife head south to carve an underwater manatee scene for the Manatee (Fla.) County Fair. Then there's a chocolate sculpture in New York City, and a 1,500 pound cheese sculpture at the Border Fest in Hidalgo, Texas, in an attempt to break a Guinness World Record for the largest cheese sculpture. The current record is held by Tanys Pullin of England, known as the 'cheese wedding cake' expert. In June 2010, she crafted a half-ton crown from cheddar to mark the anniversary of the Queen's Coronation.

Aside from playing with fruits and vegetables, Victor does work with candies. He once constructed a peanut brittle house for a project in San Francisco. What hasn't he tackled?

"There was a possibility to do the Eiffel Tower," he said. "That would be fun. There are always these opportunities."

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