Butter-free summer: What does the famous butter sculptor do without the Iowa State Fair?
In a normal year, thousands of visitors would be streaming through the Iowa State Fair, flooding the Agricultural Building in search of honey lemonade, an egg on a stick and, of course, the famous butter cow.
And in the cooler, working inconspicuously and bundled up against the 50-degree temperature, would be butter sculptor Sarah Pratt.
But with the Iowa State Fair canceled, Pratt, 43, is having her first butter cow-free summer since Nirvana smelled like Teen Spirit.
Pratt, who has spent this summer working on non-perishable artistic pursuits, will jump back into the margarine medium to host an online butter sculpting class at 2 p.m. Tuesday. A video of the class will be available to watch anytime on the Iowa State Fair’s Facebook page.
The longtime sculptor plans to teach Iowans how to make a butter-based work of art at home from materials they have on-hand, bringing the fun of the Ag Building straight into your kitchen.
While the no-experience-necessary, DIY creations may not measure up to the 600-pound butter cow, the class, and the resulting project, promises to be both greasy and fun — just like the Iowa State Fair itself.
Just 'a helper' to lead sculptor
A native of rural Toledo, Iowa, Pratt lived in town, but “always wanted to be a farm girl," she said. She was fascinated by her ag friends, who would bring livestock to the fair and sleep on haystacks in the various fairground barns.
When her friend won the chance to show a dairy cow at the 1991 State Fair, Pratt offered to help prep the animal in exchange for a chance to join the fairground fun.
But showing dairy cows takes skill: One has to know how to wash, brush and lead a cow correctly.
"I used too much soap when I washed them,” Pratt said. “I didn't really know how to lead them through the barn. (I) made a scene a little bit when it stepped on my foot."
Her friend's family banished 14-year-old Pratt to the butter cooler, where Norma Lyon, their great-aunt, was sculpting. Pratt quickly became her apprentice and returned nearly every summer — always heading for the cooler instead of the barn.
As Pratt gained experience, she gradually took on more responsibility.
In 1997, Lyon insisted on continuing to sculpt after suffering a stroke. So Pratt drove her and handled media appearances, but also got a taste of being left alone in the cooler, sculpting while Lyon took afternoon naps.
Pratt became the lead butter sculptor for the 2006 State Fair. Five years later, Lyon died of a stroke.
"Norma, throughout my apprenticeship would say, 'You're going to take over someday,'" Pratt said. "I would say, 'Oh no, I can't do it, I can't do it without you, I'm just your helper.'"
The complex art of butter sculpting
The secret of butter sculpting is that it doesn't start with butter.
First Pratt has to design and build an armature — or a cow framework of sorts — made of welded metal rods and pipes. Recently, Pratt, who works as a special education teacher when not elbow deep in butter, has begun using more recycled materials and PVC pipe, which are easier to rearrange and redesign.
The butter is then molded onto a hardware cloth, which has tiny holes to better hold the slippery sculpture. After forming a rough shape over the armature, sculptors focus on details, using carving tools or trusty fingernails to carve fur onto the butter cow or wrinkles onto dresses.
Butter sculptors reuse the same butter, year after year, and keep it frozen so it sculpts better, Pratt said.
Over the years, Pratt has become more confident in her craft — another skill learned from watching Lyon, who never second-guessed herself.
Before Norma, "I would give up on myself, or not necessarily try something that I thought would be hard or that I wouldn't know how to do right away," she said.
Since becoming the lead sculptor, Pratt has done increasingly complex and challenging butter exhibitions. This year, she had hoped to sculpt butter suffragettes to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. It was an ambitious project, she said, which would involve multiple figures and props to represent the women's movement in Iowa.
Pratt now works alongside her twin daughters, 16-year-old Hannah and Grace. They became her official apprentices right before turning 14, the same age Pratt was when she went to work with Lyon.
"I took over as the full-time sculptor when our daughters were 2 and a half, so they have literally grown up in the cooler," Pratt said.
The twins moved quickly from their first project, crafting small woodland creatures for a display on Laura Ingalls Wilder, to last year spearheading some of the basically life-sized buttered Sesame Street characters.
"They’ve graduated very quickly to larger-scale projects," Pratt said. "They have a good eye for it."
While the COVID-19 pandemic has canceled large-scale butter gigs for this summer, Pratt said the family's creative energy has extended to non-dairy mediums. She and Hannah built a patio table of recycled scrap wood, while Grace has been working with clay.
The twins will also return to butter Tuesday, when their mom hosts the butter sculpting class.
While Pratt works on a dog to demonstrate butter sculpting to the virtual audience, Grace and Hannah will craft their own smaller projects, training for when the fair returns — and, eventually, when they take over the family's butter business.
Katie Akin is a retail reporter for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or at 515-284-8041. Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin.
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