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Iowa State Fair's butter sculptor talks about cows, Elvis and politicians

Sarah Pratt works on her butter sculptures Friday at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Salwan Georges/Washington Post)
Sarah Pratt works on her butter sculptures Friday at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Salwan Georges/Washington Post)
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A few things you can count on at the Iowa State Fair: corn dogs, politicians pressing the flesh and a life-size cow sculpture made out of butter. An ephemeral art (like sand murals), butter sculpting dates back to ancient Tibetan Buddhist monks and reflects the impermanence of life. Sarah Pratt is the fair’s fifth official butter sculptor since 1911, taking over in 2006.

She broke away from sculpting the cow and its companion statues to talk about failing up, the fragrance of 15-year-old butter and turning butter back into a cow. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

Q: What did you have for breakfast?

A: Two pieces of white toast with strawberry preserves.

Q: No butter?

A: Oh no, no, no; there was butter. That goes without saying. There’s always butter.

Q: How did you get into butter sculpting?

A: When I was 14 I was in 4-H with my friend Kerry Lyon, and we went to the fair. When we got there, I was told to wash a cow. I was fired from that job and asked to walk the cows down to the milking parlor. It was a disaster. My last chance before being sent home was to help Kerry’s great-aunt Norma Lyon, who sculpted the butter cow at the fair for 45 years. She put me to work washing buckets and kept inviting me back year after year, which turned into an apprenticeship, and then me taking over.

Q: How have the tools for sculpting changed in the past century?

A: A lot of sculpting tools are probably similar, because they’re made out of wood and wire. But now I use technology to figure out proportions and to research the topics that I’m sculpting, like the best of the Holstein breed.

Q: How has the butter cow look changed?

A: A hundred years ago, the tradition was more day-in-the-life-of-a-farm; eventually it moved into what we have now, a show cow posing. And cows in general are just taller and bigger as the breeds have progressed.

Q: The butter cow has had a companion statue every year since 1996. How did that become a tradition?

A: I’ve seen pictures of butter sculptors long ago making different political characters. But now it’s geared toward pop culture. We wanted the cow to stay timeless to honor this tradition, and pull in something new each year.

Q: You’re doing Sesame Street as the companion sculptures this year. What were your factors in deciding which characters to create?

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A: I decided to put Julia in this year. She is a new character who is depicted with autism, and I’m a special ed teacher, so that was an important thing for me. As I shared it with people, they said, “great,” because she is a female character. That hadn’t even occurred to me. I think about them as puppets, but all the ones I had chosen to that point are depicted as a “he.”

Q: A big part of the Sesame Street characters are their colors, but you’re working in butter, which comes in one color.

A: One of my passions in the sculpting process is to be as responsible with the medium as I can, to reuse and recycle as much as I can, including the butter. Colored butter is hard to save.

Q: How old is the butter you’re using now?

A: Fourteen years old. Each year kids get to sculpt butter at the fair, too, so I get a little new butter from that each year.

Q: What’s the difference between working with old butter and new butter?

A: New butter is crumbly and has more moisture content, generally. Old butter is a lot more like clay.

Q: What does it smell like in a 40-degree, refrigerated cooler where you’re working in with 14-year-old butter all day?

A: If I open up one of those buckets of great, aged, perfect sculpting butter, it smells a lot like blue cheese. And it ranges from there, from Parmesan to blue cheese. Think of your favorite aged cheese. I try to reframe people’s minds, so they don’t just think, “rancid butter.”

Q: Are your daughters and son interested in butter sculpting, or do they want to stay away from it?

A. Two years ago I hired (15-year-old twin daughters) Hannah and Grace as official apprentices. They are hoping to take over some day.

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Q. Every four years, the Iowa State Fair becomes a political hotbed. I read that candidates have courted the butter sculptors’ endorsements over the years. Norma endorsed candidates. Do you?

A. Norma’s endorsements speak more to her audacity as a person. Being bold with her words and convictions was something that she naturally did. I am looking forward to hearing what candidates stand for. Iowans can get a sense of a person’s character just by seeing them in person.

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