Ken Robison has been working as an artist for decades, but in 2016, he tried out a new medium: butter. The artist took over as the butter sculptor for the State Fair of Texas last year, and as Big Tex prepared to welcome visitors to this year’s event, he returned to the creamery—er, studio—to create “Mount Muchmore.” The buttery ode to Texas and Texans will live in the Creative Arts Building at the fairgrounds throughout the festival’s three-and-a-half weeks. Texas Monthly caught up with the artist to learn how a practicing vegan approaches working with dairy.
Texas Monthly: How did you get involved in doing the butter sculpture?
Ken Robison: It was quite by accident. I’m a painter and sculptor on my own, and I’ve done a great deal of work out here at the State Fair of Texas designing and putting up signage, and building unique projects since 1992. There was a lady from Maine who would come down to do butter sculptures every year—she was an eighteen-year veteran of it. Then last year, she decided she wasn’t gonna do it again, and they panicked and asked me.
TM: What’s it like working with butter as medium?
KR: It’s probably the most difficult medium that I’ve ever used. When I’m working with clay, whether the shop is warm or hot, it makes very little difference. The clay is consistent. When I do sculpting in urethane foam or polystyrene, you can depend on what it’s gonna be like. Butter is not like that. Butter melts. It becomes liquid. It gets too soggy to use. If it’s frozen too hard, it’s impossible to cut. So it’s back and forth. I have to take it inside the freezer so I can work it awhile, then I have to take it out so I can add more to the piece. When I was younger, I used to look at the butter sculpture at the state fair—I thought it was fine, I guess, but now I have a new respect for people working with butter.
TM: What’s the creative process like when working on a sculpture like this?
KR: Usually there’s some armature. With something like butter or clay, you can’t hold that in the air. I have to figure out what I’m gonna do, and then figure out the inner structure. Then there’s about a half ton of butter. So how long does it take to whip it into shape? [laughs] They pay a stipend to do this work, and I’m really afraid to account for every hour, because I don’t want to find out I’m working for three-fifty an hour.
TM: How much creative freedom do you have in deciding what you’re going to make?
KR: Not much. They have a theme for the State Fair of Texas every year, and I have to make something in alignment with that. This year, we were doing ordinary Texans that become extraordinary heroes. I didn’t do a specific person in the sculpture—instead, I did a “Mount Muchmore,” as a takeoff of Mount Rushmore. In this thing, we’ve got a frontiersman who started Texas all the way to an astronaut who we blasted into space from Houston. So they’re all Texans. The two in the middle are a construction worker or an oilfield worker, and a farmer who feeds America. So I did that to represent Texas heroes. I picked a monolith in Big Bend that I carved it into. I’m not sure if it has a name, but it’s fairly recognizable. You couldn’t carve into the monolith in real life, but I wanted something we can recognize as being in Texas. Then I carved a quirk, a little dinosaur, probably seven-and-a-half inches tall, chasing a four-inch-tall guy, just to be fun. That’s my part, and they can live with that.
TM: You’re a practicing vegan. What’s it like working with butter?
KR: I’m not eating it, so I’m okay with it. I can live with it. I’ve been a vegetarian for thirty years, and vegan for not quite that long. Just a few months or so. I became a vegetarian for my health’s sake, and I became a vegan for Earth’s sake. It’s just a preference of mine, and I’m sticking to it.
TM: Is this a weird thing to end up working on at this point in your career?
KR: It is quirky, but I make it into fun. That’s what the state fair is supposed to be about. I’ve been working there since ’92, and I want people to come to the state fair. This is a part of my livelihood on a yearly basis. I want them to smile and laugh, and when they see the butter sculpture, I want them to do the same thing.