PALMETTO -- Inside the Manatee County Fair’s exhibit hall, sculptor Jim Victor was whittling away at his latest work of art: an underwater scene of a manatee swimming alongside a diver, seaweed covering the ocean floor below.
Spectators peered into the climate-controlled trailer where Victor, wearing a hooded jacket, worked. The temperature inside was about 55 degrees.
The reason behind the chilly conditions: Victor was sculpting out of butter.
Nearly 700 pounds of it.
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For about 30 years, Victor has been food-sculpting for dozens of fairs and companies, from the Miami-Dade County Fair to the Hershey Co. It’s Victor’s first time at the Manatee County Fair.
Besides butter, Victor has sculpted artwork out of other edible materials, including: a chocolate stegosaurus, a Christopher Columbus bust carved out of Parmesan and the Mona Lisa depicted in Italian food.
“It’s real. People really do it,” Victor said. “I tried it with whatever people wanted me to do.”
The idea to become a food sculptor began after Victor graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1968. He didn’t have a job lined up. But he found a chocolate sculpting job, which led him to create a chocolate bust of Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller for a Broadway show.
He and his wife, Marie Pelton, now run a food-sculpting business from their home in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Victor also has worked on non-food artwork in the past.
Victor drove down to Palmetto with his $8,500 climate-controlled booth latched onto the back of his Toyota pickup truck. During the first days of the Manatee County Fair, he got to work.
Before whipping out the butter, Victor created a steel structure to hold the weight of the material. “From there, I keep putting the butter on the model,” Victor said.
With slabs of butter in one hand and a wooden tool in the other, Victor meticulously spread the butter to form the sculpture.
The butter was donated to Victor by a Land O’Lakes plant in Pennsylvania. But the butter isn’t edible because it was deemed unuseable by Land O’Lakes.
The reason behind the manatee? “It’s the Manatee County Fair,” Victor said who uses hammers, wooden tools and photographs of manatees to carve his creation.
But the pictures were misleading, Victor said. He went to the South Florida Museum to visit Snooty, the oldest living manatee in captivity. When he saw the manatee, Victor realized Snooty’s head was smaller than the manatees he’d seen in photos. He went back to his sculpture and carved away at the head.
“They always say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the real thing is worth a thousand pictures,” Victor said.
Inside the trailer, Victor keeps the thermostat between 55 and 60 degrees so the butter is pliable. Once it’s complete, the temperature will be lowered to 50 degrees.
Reactions vary from the crowd. Many stared at the manatee, mouths open. Others laughed.
“Ice sculptures I’ve seen, but not butter,” said Diane Deuel of Ellenton.
Victor occasionally walks outside to examine his work from a distance. Spectators then pick his brain with questions and make butter jokes.
As he stared at the butter manatee, Bob Uhl, of Ridgewood, said, “I would grab a piece of toast.”
Victor hopes to finish the sculpture today. The sculpture’s fate after the fair hasn’t been decided, Victor said. In the past, butter from his sculptures was melted into biofuel.
Until then, Victor continues to work, one scrap of butter at a time.