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!