Rare Art

09.22.12

Butter Sculptor Sharon BuMann on Her Art, ‘Butter’ Movie & More

Sharon BuMann may work most of the year in bronze, but her butter sculptures are cult favorites—and if she skips one of her three state fairs, people get mad. Malcolm Jones catches up to her in Kansas.

Sharon BuMann isn’t crazy about working in the cold. And she doesn’t like working in small, cramped spaces. But more than anything, she really, really hates the way butter feels. “I keep my hands covered in gloves,” she says, “because I don’t like the stuff on my hands. I’ve been like that since I was a child. So I’m probably in the wrong business.”

That said, she loves her job.

BuMann is a butter sculptor. She is one of a small handful of people who travel every year to slightly more than a dozen state fairs or agricultural exhibitions to carve people, animals, and scenes out of a substance most of us just put on our toast.

She’s been doing this for almost 20 years, and although the rigor of spending up to 12 hours a day in a sealed cabinet set at 37 degrees has forced her to cut her schedule back to three fairs a year—Illinois, Kansas, and Texas—she wouldn’t think of quitting altogether.

“I’m very fond of the people I work with” at the various fairs, she says. And she gets a kick out creating something extraordinary out of an unlikely substance in an even unlikelier location. “I like to think I’m bringing a piece of fine art to people who would otherwise never see it,” she says, standing outside the cooler where she’s created this year’s sculpture for the Kansas fair.

Because Kansas is kicking off its centennial year, she concentrated on a very Kansas subject: Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz. “To me, Dorothy is Kansas,” says BuMann, who hails from Central Square, in upstate New York.

There’s also a twister, a derailed train, and a very excited engineer. The train is modeled on a miniature train that conveys people around the fairgrounds in Hutchinson, Kan., but the engineer—modeled on a carpenter who works at the fairgrounds and is a longtime friend of BuMann’s—Dorothy, and Toto are all life-size.

“I always get a kick out of the people who come and tell me about the butter sculptures they’ve seen at different fairs,” she says, as she peels off some of the three layers she has to wear to endure the refrigeration. “The interesting thing is, they can tell you about them in great detail. They’ve really studied them.” She laughs. “And usually they’re mine!

“I remember a professor of mine from college saying to me, ‘What’s the butter sculpture going to be this year? I have to go and see it.’ This is a man who has studied and done bronze sculpture with the top people in the world, and he’s fascinated with butter sculpture!”

She’s not entirely sure what gets people so worked up about butter sculpture. “I have to believe it’s because you’ve taken a comestible and made it into something unsuspected,” she says. “I’m sure everyone’s mother has said, ‘Don’t play with your food,’ and that’s what I do for part of my living.”

One thing she knows for sure: her audiences become quite invested in her work. “I skipped one year in Dallas, and they were just irate,” she says. “There were 200 letters to the editor of the local paper complaining because there was no butter sculpture.

“People think it’s so glamorous. Trust me, it’s freezing and it’s greasy.”

For most of the year, BuMann works not in butter but in bronze. She got her degree in sculpture from Syracuse University, and most of her works are life-size commissioned pieces and restoration work. Her subjects range from a female Civil War surgeon to a Marine slain in Afghanistan. But clearly butter has her heart.

“I’ve done well over 60 pieces,” she says. “I can’t even remember them all, but in Illinois, I always have to do a cow. But I have the cow in different settings and poses. In Dallas I try to follow the theme of the fair fairly closely. One year Tutankhamen was going to be featured at the fair, so I did an Egyptian tomb, and we had secret doors and a strobe light inside the sarcophagus, and little slits so you could see—he was being blessed by Anubis. Here we did a mother and child riding on a roller coaster one year. Last year we did sheep racing. The theme was ‘Sheep Thrills.’ I put monkeys on the sheep, and one was a cowboy in chaps and a cowboy hat, and one was a jockey in silks. I usually put other little critters and characters in there. In Kansas, I always try to put in at least one prairie dog.”

She has seen the trailer for Butter, a comedy about butter sculpting due in movie theaters next month, but she still has no idea what to expect. “It’s supposed to be about a little orphan girl who wins a butter-sculpture contest, but the trailer’s completely different, so I’m confused.” The studio has sent her tickets and asked her for her opinion, “so, we’ll see,” she says with a shrug.

Hollywood certainly couldn’t have found a more expert opinion. No one teaches butter sculpting, and its practitioners guard their secrets closely. Everything is trial and error. “I’m still learning” at 59, says BuMann. “You learn every day.”

'People think it’s so glamorous. Trust me, it’s freezing and it’s greasy.'

What she’s learned, or at least what she’s willing to share: butter is fickle with regard to temperature. “Once it gets above 45 degrees, it just gets gummy. It’s like sculpting on peanut butter. When I take it into the refrigerated space, it’s warm. If I let it sit there, it chills fairly quickly, and if I catch it at the right temperature, it’s like plasticine clay, oil-based clay.”

Butter is a good medium to work with when doing large pieces like the Kansas sculpture, which took more than 900 pounds, because “it holds its own weight,” she says.

And butter can stink. In Kansas, they recycle the butter from one year to the next. “We had butter that we’d used for four years, and after a few years it gets, um, pungent. Sometimes I put peppermint schnapps in it. The alcohol doesn’t affect the butter’s ability to stick together, and it makes it smell better.” But this year the old butter went for biofuel testing, and BuMann got a new batch. “The new butter is much nicer to work with,” she says. “This one I’m going to put some color in. I’ll be using cinnamon and nutmeg to get the colors I’m looking for, so it does smell good in there.”

The hardest part of the process for her is the ephemeral, here-and-gone nature of the enterprise. “This will be in five-gallon buckets in a week,” she says, gesturing at the case that holds her creation. “That’s the big difference between doing something in butter and something in bronze. When you do something in bronze, you do it to last forever. And the butter, when you’re done, it’s over.”

She shrugs. “But I still like to give it the best I can and do each one better than the last.”

And while she may be philosophical about it all, she’s certainly not sentimental. “I can’t stand to see a stick of butter until Christmas,” she says. “Sometimes not ’til January!”