Victual reality: Food is art — and a living — for two Conshohocken sculptors [photos + timelapse video]

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A bust made out of bacon. An M&M mosaic of football hall-of-famer and Pennsylvania native Joe Montana. Conshohocken couple Marie Pelton and Jim Victor make a living sculpting food into icons and scenes from life.

For the past dozen days, that has meant crafting a half-ton butter sculpture for the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Sitting in what amounts to a giant refrigerator with glass walls in the farm show complex in Harrisburg, they’ve applied butter stars to a butter quilt and butter veins on the udders of a life-size butter cow.

Surrounded by this much dairy, “you can smell still the creaminess of the butter,” said Pelton, who likens the aroma to ice cream. All of that material is left over from a cleaning process at the Land O’Lakes plant in Carlisle, Pennsylania.

Pelton and Victor are big on the farm-show circuit, each year shaping sculptures at fairgrounds in California, Massachusetts, Florida and Texas, as well as the Keystone State.

Both trained in sculpture in more traditional media at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. It was Victor who first fell into food art as a professional niche.

“It was sort of a fluke,” said Vicor. “[The] job was in chocolate … I didn’t think too much of it except people liked seeing a chocolate sculpture.”

People kept liking it — and paying for it. At first, gigs were fewer and far between with the couple marketing themselves to fairs around the country. Around 2000, commissions started rolling in, according to the married couple who have been business partners for 15 years.

Pelton and Victor didn’t want to discuss their rates, saying time spent and intricacy can push the cost higher or lower. Butter sculptures at other state fairs have been reported to run from $2,000 to more than $10,000 a pop.

The couple isn’t limited to butter and chocolate. Some of their more unusual commissions include a bust of former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro — complete with cigar — made out of fruit, as well as a mockup of a caramel Mount Rushmore.

Food companies or lobbying boards tend to underwrite the sculptures, although they also do work commissioned for public relations events or private parties. Last October, they entered the Guinness Book of World Records for largest butter sculpture with a 2,300 pound Parisian landscape constructed in Times Square.

Although they’re professionally trained artists, the couple found using food as a medium meant a lot of trial and error. In order to make butter moldable, they carefully control the temperature during different stages of the process. Raising the temperature lets them apply lots of butter quickly, while keeping it chillier allows for finer detail.

That control lets them make commissioned pieces that look real — such as the cows and people made of butter they produce for the farm show.

Pelton and Victor both say they’d appreciate a chance to branch out. For Pelton, that means conveying a social message through their food art.

For Victor, that would mean something abstract, along the lines of the Dutch abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. That artist’s lumpen and organic clay sculptures displayed the particular qualities of that material, and often featured the impressions of the his fingers in the final product.

“He’d just put his hands in it,” said Victor. For butter, that would mean having a piece that’s “dripping over here and squeezed over here and just have fun with it.”

For now, Victor and Pelton are making abstract pieces — out of more traditional materials — in their spare time. Unlike de Kooning’s clay and bronze sculptures, food art is not made to last. When the farm show is over, the butter from the sculpture will be carted off to a facility and turned into biofuel.

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