She had a butter way to sculpture.
November 4, 2017
Caroline Shawnk Brooks realized that she was able to actually carve the butter into animals, shells, faces, and flowers.
In the late 1800s, a young woman made her way from the United States to Italy where she would learn the art of carving marble from master marble cutting artisans. Caroline Shawnk Brooks had done this at the urging of her many fans that had suggested she take up the mallet and chisel. She had also hoped to move her own craft up a notch and spent seven years in Italy learning to do just that.
She did become quite good working with the marble but she never gave up her first love—that of working with butter. “I began my work with butter, and with butter I shall end.” She had innate artistic talent and as a small girl, she had sculpted an impressive bust of Dante out of creek mud. She admitted sculpting with all types of mediums, including mashed potatoes. She used sea sand, clay, and even putty.
As a young farmer’s wife, she had been in charge of making and selling the butter from the farm. Women in the 1860s and before, supplementing incomes, often put the butter into molds that created beautiful patterns. You could get the molds pre-made. Caroline would never have any of that. She realized that she was able to actually carve the butter into animals, shells, faces, and flowers. Her sculptures were admired by all who saw them. Sales of sculpted butter kept her family afloat when the cotton crop failed on their Arkansas farm. Her talent actually saved the farm.
More and more, Caroline’s talents gained recognition. Even though the farm was no longer in danger, Caroline kept churning butter, and there were times she was able to use her skill to help others. In 1873, when the roof of her church had severe damage, she was able to sell a butter portrait at the fair to fix the caved-in roof completely, good as new.
A man from Tennessee learned of her remarkable work and commissioned a sculpture of Mary Queen of Scots as a point of interest for his Memphis office. How is this possible? Butter gets soft if not chilled. Caroline had developed a method of using a pan within a pan, and the outer pan was filled with fresh ice. Sometimes she would work away, in front of audiences, shaping the butter with wooden paddles of different sizes and a straw brush. Sculptures would be moved to the icebox when not on display.
Although Caroline had also developed a method of plaster-casting her butter sculptures to make permanent creations, she preferred the temporary versions and always went back to plain old butter.
She continued perfecting her butter-sculpting techniques and began traveling the country making her sculptures for fascinated audiences, and selling the finished products. In 1876, Lucy Hayes, a future first lady, commissioned a work at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Lucy had been an ardent fan of her work and commissioned the Dreaming Iolanthe, the princess in the play King Rene’s Daughter. This would be Caroline’s most famous work.
In October of that same year, Caroline was asked to do a demonstration in the Judge’s Hall. Reporters were in the crowd that gathered to see her turn a twelve-pound glob into a thing of rare beauty—another sleeping beauty in the form of a relief bust.
At another demonstration in Des Moines, Iowa, Caroline drew a crowd of 2000. On that November day of 1877, she sat on a high stool, in a white smock in front of her special ice-easel. Her hair was pulled back out of the way, and as a brass band played musical accompaniments, she sculpted away. Each work of art had its own musical theme. For example, as the national anthem of France, La Marseilles, was played, she sculpted a relief of Napoleon. When a distinctly American song was played, on cue, she turned the relief of Napoleon into George Washington. From this show, she went on to tour the U.S., giving lectures and demonstrations, sometimes with more musical accompaniments.
Caroline was able to successfully market herself as a celebrity and dream up new gimmicks to retain the interest of her fans. She had separated from her husband by that point, and in 1878 made her way to Washington D.C. where she opened a studio. She took commissions from elite patrons, gave demonstrations, and put her works on exhibit.
Little is known of the later years of Caroline Shawnk Brooks, aka The Butter Woman. Her natural death was recorded as occurring in 1913 in Washington D.C. Possibly due to Caroline’s perseverance, butter sculpting is now a recognized art form with competitions at festivals and fairs throughout the country.
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Curious Indeed, a collection of true stories about the unknown and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.