As It Happens

Of course butter sculptures aren't solid butter, artist tells shocked Twitterverse

Rebecca Hollett tells As It Happens guest host Helen Mann that butter sculptors usually have something in their pieces — like foam or wood — to help keep it together.

Rebecca Hollett says butter sculptors often use other materials to keep their creations sturdy

After this photograph was posted to Twitter, some Torontonians were surprised to learn that sculptors at the CNE were using more than just butter to make their creations. (Stephen Punwasi/Twitter)

This story was originally published on  Aug. 20, 2019.

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It's a highlight for some visitors at Toronto's annual Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) — seeing sculptors use huge amounts of butter to create extraordinary things.

But a tweet posted Aug. 19 by Stephen Punwasi shattered some people's ideas of what's involved in the art of butter sculpting: "[Today I learned] the butter sculptures at the EX are just pieces of plastic covered in butter." 

Rebecca Hollett is the sculptor in the photograph in that tweet. This year — her fourth year at the CNE — she's making a Raptor in honour of Toronto's basketball championship.

Hollett explained herself to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. Here's a part of that conversation. 

Can you describe what we're looking at in this photograph? 

This photograph is of me sculpting in the butter fridge. 

It's actually funny because I'm covering my armature, which is the skeleton of my work ... with butter. 

It's actually a photo right before disaster happens, where the whole sculpture actually comes falling down.

Rebecca Hollett says she uses foam from Home Depot as a framework for her butter sculptures. (Rebecca Hollett/Canadian National Exhibition)

The person who posted the photo on Twitter is suggesting that butter sculptures are not solid butter, but pieces of plastic covered in butter. 

It isn't plastic. It's actually just some foam from Home Depot, to be honest. I actually ended up building the foam part for the dinosaur as an armature to go and keep it up. 

It's funny because a lot of people are going crazy over it and saying, "Oh my gosh. It's not solid butter." But that's kind of what almost every butter sculptor does. Almost every piece has something in it.

I guess we think [of] maybe the way people carve ... hard pieces of marble or carve ice — that it's like a solid block that you kind of just chip away at. Does it ever work like that? 

Not really. 

You know, we're going really dynamic with our sculptures now. We're going bigger and we're getting much ... larger with our scale. 

A lot of the pieces have a lot of hanging overhangs ... large arms or very tall sculptures, and we need something to support that. 

Ice holds itself up but ... you know, if you've ever smeared butter on your toast you know what it's like. It has no real form to it. So a lot of sculptures, unless they're very small, are usually filled with something in it. 

How many pounds of butter are we talking about, say, for this Raptor?

So when I was starting, the Raptor was actually more of a 3D piece. It has turned more into relief, just because it's so unstable and, you know, not to risk the other butter sculptures being crushed by a 300-pound Raptor.

It is a big heavy sculpture and gravity just ... really wants to pull it down, so I used foam. 

It's like 90 per cent butter. So it really is still a butter sculpture.- Rebecca Hollett, butter sculptor

You mentioned how this seems to have really blown away many people in Toronto. ... Some of the tweets are, "That's honestly heartbreaking. I blame capitalism," "There goes my last remaining reason to visit the Ex," [and] "A travesty and a colossal waste of butter." 

People are pretty outraged. 

Yeah. It really surprised me. 

It was funny. The sculpture next to me, it's an anvil with the roadrunner on top of it, it had a pipe sticking out of it for a good two days. And a couple other pieces, like there's a very large dragon sculpture in there, it had wood sticking out of it.

I think maybe the reason people noticed mine more was because it's purple so it sticks out more.

But it definitely hasn't been the first year that I have gotten questions about, you know, "Oh my gosh, that's cheating." Or, you know, "Why are you doing that?" 

Then as soon as we explain it, a lot of people are like, "Oh right. Like, you know, it's butter. It's mushy. It doesn't have a form." 

Rebecca Hollett is working on a sculpture of a Raptor at this year's Canadian National Exhibition. (Rebecca Hollett/Canadian National Exhibition )

Do you ever feel like it's a bit too much butter smell all around you? 

No, I love butter. Butter is wonderful. I eat butter and I live close to a dairy farm, actually. So I've always been around butter and I love working with it and eating it too.

What do you want to say to those people who feel maybe a little crushed by the reality of the fact that you're not dealing with solid butter here?

I think people just need to look more closely at the other sculptures and realize that it's been this way as long as I've sculpted or the other sculptors have sculpted. 

But it's still a lot of butter. For the most part, including my sculpture, it's only 10 per cent armature. It's like 90 per cent butter. So it really is still a butter sculpture.

Written by Katie Geleff. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.