Posts Categorized: People

Butter-to-Art: An Interview with Butter Sculptress Sarah Pratt

By Benji Nichols 

With roots dating as far back as the 1400s, butter has been used in various ways to create art – Monks even made deities out of yak butter! Here in Iowa we’ve been making butter art since the early 1900s with the Iowa State Fair “Butter Cow.” The list of the artists who have worked in this medium at the State Fair is surprisingly short, but Inspire(d) was lucky enough to catch up with the latest heir to the title “Butter Sculptor.”

It is worth noting that the construction of a butter figure is even more complex than you would already suspect. More than 600 pounds of low-moisture, pure-cream Iowa butter are used to cover a frame constructed of wood, metal, wire, and steel mesh. Inside a 40-degree cooler, Sarah Pratt applies layer upon layer of butter until an almost full size figure comes to life. It’s also worth noting that the butter is not wasted – in fact, it is often used to create sculptures for up to ten years – so no sneaking a taste! The Midwest Dairy Association has sponsored the attraction since 1960, and we are delighted to have had the chance to ask Pratt a few questions.


Name: Sarah Pratt

Age: 32 (in 2009)

Profession: Teacher at Phoenix Elementary Early Childhood Center in West Des Moines

I: Where did you grow up?

SP: Toledo, Iowa

I: How did you get involved with Norma ‘Duffy’ Lyon (Butter Sculptor for decades prior) helping to create the butter sculptures? 

SP:I grew up knowing Duffy and went to school with her grandkids. But it was actually a trip to the State Fair to help a friend of mine, Kari Lyon, who also happens to be the great-niece of Norma. She was showing dairy cattle and I went along to experience life in the Dairy Barn. While Kari was in the show ring I was put to work in the butter cooler, cleaning buckets and softening butter. The next year Norma called me and invited me to help again. I continued to help and Duffy trained me over the next 15 or so years.

I: What’s your favorite butter sculpture or cow that you have created? 

SP: I enjoyed sculpting Harry Potter. There were so many fun things to incorporate from the stories. But the sculpture that I was and am the most passionate about is the piece I sculpted last year honoring Norman Borlaug. So many are unaware of his accomplishments and the difference he has made in the world! It was a privilege to share Mr. Borlaug’s story with Fairgoers.

I: What else will you be carving besides the cow for the 2009 Fair? 

SP: I will be sculpting a scene from the Apollo 11 mission.  “One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.”

I: How long does it take you to create the sculptures? 

SP: I work for about three weeks before the Fair begins.

I: Any comments about working with butter as a medium? Tricks of the trade?

SP: At the right temperature butter is very much like clay. The trick is to get the butter to that point and keep it there.

I: Anyone you’d like to acknowledge or thank?

SP: I want to thank Norma for all of her support! Without her confidence in my ability I would have never believed I could do it. And of course I need to thank my husband, Andy. He is a great sounding board for ideas and has spent many hours helping me plan and build the armatures.

The Iowa State Fair runs every summer in mid-August in Des Moines. And you can get in on the butter sculpting action! Submit your name for a chance to test your skills in the Butter Sculpting Competition at the fair. See you at the Fair!

Getting Our Hands Dirty: A Growing Interest in Community-Focused Gardening


Story and Photos by Kelly Larsen 

The disdain I once held for gardening still remains distinct in my memory. As a little kid, I dreaded being told to pick beans from the long, lush bushes beyond our back porch. With dirt-encrusted ice cream buckets in hand, my siblings and I would trudge out into the sunshine and complain our way down the never-ending rows, sweating and moaning.  Mission accomplished, bushes bare, we would trudge back inside, plopping the bucket onto the scarred kitchen table only to be greeted with a smile, a cutting board, and the task of trimming heads and tails from the beans before dinner. After considerable protest, we would sigh, resigned to our fate, and begin the monotonous chopping process. I hated gardening, my nine-year-old self decided. I liked beans, but definitely not gardening.

If only I had known.  A decade later, my college roommate and I found ourselves craving homegrown, flavorful produce after a semester of cafeteria food. In a surge of optimistic domesticity, we soon had our own little assortment of plastic cups and earthenware pots lined scraggily along the windowsill in our dorm room: carrots, marigolds, thyme, basil, parsley, oregano, and violets. Some were successful, some less so. But we treasured our little garden, watering it daily with drips from our Nalgenes, rejoicing together over little green sprouts in the early spring gloom of papers and exams. In our garden we found a return to home, the satisfaction of growth and development, and a little outlet from the stress and cares of college life. We loved our garden. It didn’t matter that our carrots were underdeveloped and the oregano never grew. We were trying it. Soon our curious friends came in to examine our attempts, some eventually planting their own flowers and veggies. Our puny plants quickly blossomed into a community garden of sorts, an assortment of pots worth much more than the sum of its parts.

Gardening – both community and home-based – is growing just like those scrawny plants in our dorm room window. According to a recent survey by the National Gardening Association, approximately 36 million American homes – 31% of US households – had a food garden in 2008. In 2009 that number was expected to increase dramatically, up to 43 million households (37%). Reasons for that upswing varied, with the desires for better tasting, cheaper, higher quality, and safely grown food topping the list.  Though the vast majority of food gardens are still found at individuals’ homes, more than a third of those surveyed said they would be at least somewhat interested in community gardening. The idea of gardening in community, a group of people sharing a plot of land, has been around for years, especially in urban communities where green space is scarce. In recent times the trend has spread into more rural areas, including Northeast Iowa.

Gardening has already proven itself a valuable pastime. The monetary return over one growing season from the average American’s $70 garden investment equals about $530.  With recession-frugality reigning and a generational trend towards organic, eco-friendly, and homegrown products, gardening – especially community gardening – has become a popular way to share, produce, and save. Even the White House has caught the bug: Michelle Obama’s food garden has made international news and the USDA’s People’s Garden is inspiring embassies around the world. Gardening has gone mainstream, appearing on such popular shows as Martha Stewart, where Decorah’s own Seed Savers Exchange was featured in February 2009.

Though Seed Savers Exchange’s focus is seeds, not produce, the organization plays an important role in area agriculture and gardening. Its lavish gardens, nestled among the Heritage Farm’s acres of woods and trails, certainly catch the eye of local and visiting gardening enthusiasts. It was misting gently when I visited, and my jaw dropped at the veritable Eden of growing plants. Notebook in hand, I strode quietly alongside Shannon Carmody – an Illinois native now interning at the heritage farm – as she pointed out highlights of the organization’s many on-site gardens. Vegetables and herbs nestled among flowers and themed mini-gardens within a broader tapestry of flora all provide beautiful examples of edible landscaping, companion planting, and organic gardening at their finest. But the Seed Savers gardens serve a greater purpose than just beautifying Northeast Iowa. The number of needy recipients of the organization’s Herman’s Garden program – a seed donation program designed to help non-profit community gardens and educational programs around the country – jumped more than 30 percent in 2009. Seed Savers has seen huge growth in public interest in gardening over the past year and membership has also increased 47 percent.

“It’s trendy,” Shannon laughs.  “Especially with people in our younger generation, there’s a do-it-yourself trend.  Knitting, home brewing… even gardening.  It’s vogue; it’s hip now. It’s hip environmentalism.”  Of course, she adds, the increased interest in gardening isn’t solely due to the garden projects of celebrities like Martha Stewart and Michelle Obama. “It goes mainstream, and then it’s accessible. I hope people actually see that it’s important. It’s important to have your own food, to understand where it’s coming from.”

Seed Savers Editor John Torgrimson agrees. “I think the growth is due to a lot of different things,” he says. “You could say that the economic times are such that people are looking for ways to control costs, and gardening is something you can actually do. A lot of people do it for recreation. It’s a great pastime. And the benefits are obvious.”

John and his wife Pat enjoy a large garden at home, while Shannon maintains a plot in Decorah’s community garden, located in the floodplain by the Upper Iowa River.

That community garden, Shannon adds, has been a joy, and enables inexperienced gardeners to learn from others. “It’s hard to be the pioneer when you don’t know what you’re doing,” she explains. “But when you see your neighbor doing it, it becomes accessible.”

Rick Edwards, Decorah Parks and Recreation director, was instrumental in bringing the Decorah community garden to fruition in the spring of 2008. Though a massive flood wiped out the first year’s efforts, this summer there has been a resurgence of interest, with different families and individuals maintaining about 20 gardens. The 20-by-20-foot plots cost $25, with water and mulch provided. The soil is good, Rick adds, though the deer can be bad.  But that’s part of the gamble of gardening.

The beauty of the community garden aspect, he says, is in the collaboration and creativity. “Everybody gets together and talks, you know, about how stuff is growing, how the deer are eating it… some people are having pretty good success,” he explains.  “We have everything from very experienced gardeners to some gardeners that are giving it their first shot. But they’re all in one spot, so the novice gardeners can get advice, see how the experts do it, help each other out.”

The sense of community, however, isn’t the only thing that drew Edwards and residents of Decorah’s neighborhoods to gardening. For Rick, like many others, it comes back to knowing where his food comes from and what’s in it. “There’s something great about having a tomato and knowing you’re the only one who’s touched it,” he says.

Not surprisingly, that desire for healthy, local food is also part of what inspired Decorah’s Jenni Werners and Deborah Bishop to organize other volunteers and plant a garden specifically designated for the Decorah Area Food Pantry.

“Most people at the food pantry can’t afford to garden themselves, or housing is the issue, or even transportation to get down to the community garden,” Jenni explains.

Surrounded by fencing draped with clanking, deer-dissuading tin pie plates, the plot is full of a variety of well-tended vegetables, from the conventional potato to the mysterious rutabaga. Jenni and Deborah also know of many other groups that have collaborated on garden projects for donation to the community. Theirs is just a small patch in what they hope to see grow into a larger movement. Though the struggling economy has probably bolstered the growth in gardening, both women agree that the revitalized interest is a good thing.

“It’s got people excited,” says Jenni. “And it’s really a lot of fun,” Deborah adds.

Gardeners like Jenni and Deborah are an enthusiastic lot, and that enthusiasm seems contagious. Luther College has a large community garden for faculty and staff flourishing on Pole Line Road; Waukon boasts a community garden which was planted to improve access to locally grown food; the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness initiative maintains a heavy emphasis on fresh, healthy, and local food; the Decorah Community School District has begun working to add garden-grown produce to its cafeteria options; and even college students like myself, stereotypically both busy and cheap, are forgetting their childhood disdain and digging in.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging in a new direction. Gardening is chic again, and the generational trend of re-learning our grandparents’ habits is inspiring. Maybe next year my roommate and I will be able to find a patch of ground on campus where we can dirty our hands and grow a few herbs and veggies. If not, the windowsill will work fine. After all, the carrots are only part of the joy. Growing them together is the real fun.

Kelly Larsen is a student of international relations, journalism, and Spanish at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Next year she dreams of growing a watermelon in her dorm room “garden.”

Interview with artist Doug Eckheart

By Aryn Henning Nichols

In the middle of a gallery, with walls covered in bright memories of places and events he’s experienced over the past four decades, Decorah artist Doug Eckheart begins a sentence just as he’s probably begun many before: “Like I tell my students…” he pauses briefly, “surround yourself with what you love.”

Surrounding Doug at this moment is the bright aqua of the Venice canal, an exceptionally pink spring in Paris, the wide span of a Norwegian horizon, the geometry of Belgian houses. But more than the locations, it’s the feelings he had there that inspired Doug to paint the 20 pieces in his current show, “My Journey: Images of the Artist’s World Travels.” The vibrant watercolors aren’t entirely factual – colors are altered, scenery adjusted, lighting tweaked – but each is a personal experience of that specific locale, a record of a moment in time for Doug. These records, locked in memories, photos, and sketchbooks for quite some time, finally began to manifest on canvas late last year.

“The idea of this show has been in my head a long time. About 35 years,” he says. “These things need to percolate.”

While the travel took decades, the painting process took less than half a year. And each piece comes with a story.

“I intended for the paintings to inform and educate people about the place, event, cultural and historical significance,” he says. “I wanted it to be like a tour for people.”

Like this show, Doug’s career as a Luther College art professor spanned 40 years.

He retired in May 2009 with more than 60 one-person and 40 group shows under his belt in cities such as New York City, Chicago, Des Moines, Malta and Norway. He has held the title of artist-in-residence, keynote speaker, juror, department head, gallery director, and curator. He has been featured in print and on television, and has served internationally as a visiting artist. Not bad for a guy who never thought this was going to be his thing.

“I didn’t start out to do art,” he says. “I was always outside building forts and bow and arrows. But my friends and I would get together to draw. We were always listening to the radio and drawing.”

In Moorhead, Minnesota, a young Doug Eckheart also began to watch a TV show, “Come, Draw With Me,” with his friends. It featured artist Jon Gnagy, who was, essentially, Doug’s very first art teacher. From this time on, Doug always had a sketchbook handy. Art become his first love. His second was basketball. The third and most life changing: Georgiann, his high school sweetheart and now wife. The two went on to get married, begin a family, and start a life together. He earned his bachelor’s on a full scholarship for basketball at Concordia College in Moorhead, his master’s at Bowling Green University in Ohio, and then had a brief, albeit incredibly busy, stint teaching at Waldorf College before finding himself in Decorah, Iowa. Famed Decorah artist Orville Running, one of the “Brothers Running” who had helped Doug at various points in his life, asked Doug if he’d like to come teach at Luther College.

“I knew when I drove down the hill on Highway 9 that this was the place for me,” he says. “The interview consisted of a three-hour tour of Decorah – everything he showed me had to do with landscapes, all places he knew I’d want to paint.”

Decorah had him at Dunning’s Spring. And it was this lush landscape that Doug first set out to paint in his brand new home.

“Really, I found the perfect place – no. It found me,” Doug says of Decorah. “Life led me right where I was supposed to be.”

Faith, he says, has directed him in virtually every aspect of life. Now, looking back on more than four decades of teaching, a 48-year marriage to his childhood sweetheart, four grown children, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, life has definitely taken him on a sweet ride. Turning his sights on retirement, Doug sees painting, teaching workshops, and finding patience for golf just as he’s found patience for watercolors. Looking over his art, too, Doug can definitely see the years passed.

“My early work has a different energy,” he says. “I like it. It has a spontaneity you lose with age. Of course I’ve improved in some ways too. I like my age. I like where I’m at and what I’m doing.”

And this, Doug says, is paramount.

“Like I tell my students: find out what it is you like. Then do it.”

Aryn Henning Nichols likes to read, which led to writing, which led to journalism, which led to travel, which led to this magazine, which led to design. She likes all of these things. Which is nice.

 Learn more about Doug’s workshops – drawing, watercolor, ink – and Eckheart Gallery (107 W. Water Street) at www.eckheart.com