Pratt works under a heavy burden of expectations. Her challenge is to honor the legacy of her predecessor as well as her own voice. And like many artists before her, she also has to please her patrons: the Midwest Dairy Association and the Iowa State Fair, not counting the other fairs, including ones in Illinois and Oklahoma, that she has done work for. Then there are the fairgoers. The butter sculptures belong to the people, and Iowans rightly take a sense of ownership of their state’s biggest event, says Iowa State Fair marketing director Mindy Williamson. Some change is inevitable, but fairgoers are protective of their traditions, including butter sculpting.
The process starts with, well, butter, about 600 pounds of it. Salted. It holds better that way. Low-moisture butter is best. Pratt, who makes an effort not to waste anything, emphasizes that in Iowa she’s been reusing the same butter, give or take a couple hundred pounds, since 2006. (That explains the blue cheese smell. The newer butter, which has a richer yellow color but is more difficult to shape, has a mozzarella odor, she says.)
The main elements of the armature have been in place for at least a couple decades, but the frames for the secondary sculptures can require extensive tinkering. The wood and wire infrastructure of last year’s John Deere tractor, leaned against a wall in the hallway leading to the back of the glass display booth, looks like an elaborate medieval weapon the size of a horse—or a cow. There’s a welder Pratt likes for the difficult jobs, but Andy got her some welding equipment as a birthday gift a few years back, and she’s taken a few classes.
Before any butter touches the armature, however, there’s the study and the sketching. Pratt’s first year as the lead butter sculptor, Lyon took her out to the farm, and the women drove around on a golf cart. Lyon pointed at each cow they passed: “This cow has very nice front legs. And this cow has the best udder. Notice how straight this one’s back is.” And then they would sketch. These days Pratt will watch videos of dairy shows online, to observe cows in motion. The goal is to create the platonic ideal of a dairy cow. The perfect cow. For that reason, she uses different photos of various cows for reference. Every summer, the cow is familiar, but one of a kind. She prefers Jersey cows for their “big, dark, beautiful eyes” and long eyelashes, but has also sculpted Ayrshires and Holsteins.
Over the years, Pratt’s confidence has grown, as have her
abilities. With her eye for detail, she may spend hours perfecting the veins on an udder. Most of her tools would be known to any clay sculptor. Others, like some items used to spread fondant on cakes, would be more familiar to a baker. A few are custom-made. The material, too, is similar to clay, only smellier. Pratt relies a lot on her hands. Fingernails and the warmth of the human body are both invaluable. So is time.
The actual sculpting of the butter cow usually takes about a week to complete. The secondary piece can take longer, and there are often a lot of late nights in the Agriculture Building as her deadline approaches. Like most sculpture, working with butter requires a keen sense of proportions. When Pratt teaches the art, as she has begun doing in recent years, her class will begin by discussing the importance of scale. Her students build an armature with a foam board and a metal bolt, then apply papier-mache that Pratt has dyed yellow. When they’re ready, they’ll use a stick of butter and the frame to sculpt a famous work of architecture, from two-story buildings to soaring skyscrapers. How closely the butter building resembles its real-world inspiration, like how closely a butter cow resembles its model, depends on how its various parts relate to each other.
Working with butter also poses some particular challenges. Temperature, for one thing. Pratt has about 40 pounds of old butter in her freezer at home, which she and her daughters will occasionally use for smaller pieces. In the winter, her garage is cold enough to preserve the butter’s form. The rest of the year, the art needs to go in the freezer. Accidents have to be fixed. Butter melts and cracks. An udder has to be reattached. A kneeling figure topples over and needs to become a sitting figure.
Pratt’s family members have been her most accomplished students and her most valuable assistants. Her parents have suggested ideas for the secondary sculpture. She’ll consult with her brother, an engineer, and her sister when she gets stuck. Andy helps with everything from butter prep to armature transportation (getting a Tilt-A-Whirl frame from Iowa to the Tulsa State Fair in Oklahoma was a recent task) to watching the kids. One year, when the twins were younger, Pratt sat them on a piece of butcher paper and gave each a piece of wire and some butter. Grace made a butter crown and waved regally at fairgoers through the glass. In the last couple years, the girls have taken a more hands-on role. Even Dean, at 7 years old, is a fount of good ideas, suggesting the possibility of a sculpture made from nacho cheese.
Hannah wants to be an art teacher. Grace isn’t sure yet. They’ll always have a summer job, at least. The twins have known they’re next in line to sculpt butter for the Iowa State Fair for as long as people have been asking.
When Pratt was her daughters’ age, she wanted to be Indiana Jones, an archaeologist who would teach during the school year and then set off on epic adventures. Her life had gone in a different direction. But, Hannah pointed out, it hadn’t. Not really. Pratt became a teacher. And when fair season comes along, she gets to become something else. “It’s not the adventure I had thought about when I was younger, but it is true,” Pratt says. “I get to have this adventure every summer.”