Features

Fat of the Land: A Look at the Iowa State Fair’s Butter Sculptures, From FDR to Garth Brooks

Not a Paul McCarthy: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves butter sculptures from the Iowa State Fair in 2012.

ALL PHOTOS, EXCEPT WHERE NOTED: IOWA STATE FAIR

Butter makes everything better, I find myself thinking at least once a day. I love it warm, melting into a thick slice of soft sourdough, and cold, smeared onto a crusty baguette and topped with an anchovy. It’s hard to beat dipping hunks of lobster into its clarified form, and mixing it with powdered sugar and cream creates a luxurious frosting. This is an art publication, though, and we are here to talk about its appearances in that realm.

The greatest painting of butter that I know is Antoine Vollon’s Mound of Butter (1875/1885), which resides in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and shows a glorious pile that must weigh at least 20 pounds. More recently, Robert Gober has been a champion of the subject, using beeswax to create sculptures of sticks of the good stuff that can feel all at once vulnerable, menacing, tender, and even erotic. A stick of butter is a very fragile thing, Gober’s works make clear.

1939: Pigs carved from lard, on display in the fair’s poultry building, as part of National Live Stock and Meat Board refrigeration display. The sculptor is unknown. The inscription reads: “The all purpose / best and most economical shortening.”

Butter as content is one thing, though. Butter as a medium is quite another, and to see its full possibilities, one has to look to the state fairs of the United States, those age-old annual celebrations of agriculture. The Iowa State Fair, to name one, has featured a display of sculptures made of butter since 1911—typically, a cow weighing more than 500 pounds and a companion piece on a political or pop-cultural theme.

Only five people have been the fair’s official butter sculptor. Sarah Pratt has served since 2006, offering up depictions of the Moon Landing, Harry Potter, and Star Trek characters alongside the regular bovine mascot. The fair’s most famous butter sculptor was Norma “Duffy” Lyon, who handled the duties from 1960 to her retirement in 2005. (The first woman to hold the title, she endorsed Barack Obama in the state’s 2008 caucuses, a move that some observers say was a key component of his victory in the state.)

1940: Charles Umlauf, a Chicago sculptor, created this work of President Roosevelt riding a donkey (the symbol of the Democratic party) made from lard. The statue was on view in a case refrigerated at 36 degrees in the poultry building.

While butter sculpting may sound like an only-in-America phenomenon, the practice actually dates back to ancient Tibetan Buddhist monks who made such works in order to ponder the transitory nature of life, as the Washington Post noted in a fascinating interview with Pratt last week. The Iowa State Fair’s butter sculptures are fleeting, too—the event runs less than two weeks—though the butter is recycled, often for more than a decade. Pratt said that her material of choice “smells a lot like blue cheese.”

The 2019 edition of the fair wrapped yesterday, and the team behind it was kind enough to share photographs of butter sculptures going back to the late 1930s. The range is remarkable, stretching from saucy caricatures of presidential candidates (such as FDR atop a donkey) to, my favorite, a loving depiction of superstar country singer Garth Brooks. Intriguingly, many share subjects with those taken up by contemporary artists: a Snow White tableaux overlaps with Paul McCarthy, and a Tiger Woods—no joke—could read as a riff on a classic Jeff Koons. Certain ideas float through the culture. Sometimes they emerge as sculpted wood, other times as churned cream, and sometimes as both.

Below (and above), butter sculptures (and a few of lard) from the Iowa State Fair.

1941: The creator of these cows, made with Iowa butter, is not known, though it may have been J. E. Wallace.

1948: This work was made with 325 pounds of lard by Frank and Betty Dutt of Chicago over the course of 15 hours.

1952: J. E. Wallace at work on a boy and his dog for the Iowa Dairy Commissioners butter exhibition in 1952.

COURTESY IOWA STATE HISTORICAL DEPARTMENT

1954: J. E. Wallace at work on a man milking and a woman churning.

1955: Davy Crockett and a sizable bear, by J. E. Wallace.

1956: J. E. Wallace at work on a series of sculptures inspired by the classic nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle.”

1960: Norma “Duffy” Lyon of Toledo, Iowa, the first woman to serve as official butter sculptor, at work on her first cow.

1961: Lyon with her second butter cow.

1978: Lyon in the early stages of making her cow, working atop a frame of wire, metal, and wood.

1994: Garth Brooks.

1996: Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930).

1997: Elvis.

1999: The Last Supper, with its creator, Lyon.

2001: Lyon’s depiction of John Wayne.

2003: Lyon working on a butter motorcycle in the fair’s agriculture building.

2004: A three-tier cake celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Iowa State Fair.

STEVE POPE/IOWA STATE FAIR

2005: Kayla Hotvedt and Sarah assisting Norma “Duffy” Lyon on a sculpture of Tiger Woods.

2006: Sarah Pratt’s first year as butter sculptor included her depiction of Superman, as played by Brandon Routh, of Norwalk, Iowa, in Superman Returns.

2008: Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson.

2007: Harry Potter with a butter cow.

2009: The 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

2016: Star Trek.

The 2019 butter cow.

© 2019 ARTnews Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved. ARTnews® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.