While visiting the cow in person, the level of engagement between fellow viewers and the cow was high… people stayed for much longer than the average person stares at a Rothko painting in a museum.

By Miles MacClure 

Some teachers spend their summers hiking, swimming, and road tripping, but one devotes her summer to sculpting the annual butter cow for State Fairs. Butter sculpting, for the uninitiated, is exactly what it sounds like; the practice of piling, carving, and chiseling copious amounts of butter into the desired sculptural form. Sarah Pratt, a special education teacher from Iowa, began apprenticing as a butter sculptor at the age of 14, and hasn’t looked back since. Pratt accompanied a friend to the 1991 Iowa State Fair 4-H competition, and after botching several tasks, found herself relegated to carrying buckets to the back room, where she encountered her future mentor, Norma ‘Duffy’ Lyon, crafting that year’s edition of the butter cow. This encounter sparked over a decade of butter sculpting apprenticeship under Norma before taking over lead sculpting duties in 2006. Every summer, Pratt crafts the butter cow in her home state of Iowa, and travels to Illinois and Kansas to create their respective State Fair butter cows.

The long running state fair tradition of butter sculpting can be traced back to the 1903 Ohio State Fair, first appearing at the Iowa State Fair in 1911, and Illinois in 1922. This year’s Iowa exhibition featured a marriage proposal and Illinois’ cow was revealed in a ceremony featuring Governor J.B. Priztker.

The 2022 Illinois State Fair butter sculpture features a life size dairy cow clutching a sunflower between its teeth and a boy kneeling on the ground next to the cow, his arms outstretched and hands caressing the base of a sunflower growing in the butter-ground. The center of the sunflower is adorned with the words ‘grow with us’, the theme of this year’s state fair and the inspiration for Sarah Pratt’s inclusion of sunflowers in the sculpture. A second sunflower in the ground features the logo for Undeniably Dairy, a dairy resource for farmers. The fragile and ephemeral nature of the sculpture becomes palpable as the rotating pedestal halts and the cow’s slender tail wobbles on the brink of detachment. Contrary to what one might expect, the hundreds of pounds of butter shaped into a cow does not project sentiments of excess or gluttony, but rather an unusual sort of awe.

Sarah Pratt’s sense of connectedness with the earth and grounding appreciation of the nourishment provided by cows and farmers was clear when I spoke to her by phone. She speaks with such care and commitment to her craft, intent on keeping alive a tradition carried by her mentor, Norma, for over thirty years before Pratt took the helm. Pratt mentions the butter sculptures as an opportunity for children to learn lessons in ephemerality and impermanence by putting forth time and effort into a structure that ultimately lasts for such a brief moment.

Pratt maintains commitment to the materiality of butter by refraining from putting any additives or color into the butter. “There was something lost in the use of color that made it feel not like butter anymore. And so, there’s this balance for me to be authentic to the sense that this is butter,” she says.

Crafted in a mere seven days, the sculpture is composed of over 500 pounds of butter that’s been recycled each year for over ten years running. Pratt tells me the butter becomes increasingly dehydrated over time, which makes the butter easier to sculpt with. Formal aesthetic questions linger about some sculptural choices; if the boy is supposedly planting the sunflower, then why are his hands cupped around the stem several inches above the ground, and why would he be planting a flower that has already bloomed? Given Pratt created the sculpture in a week, the level of detail is nothing short of impressive, one can only speculate what she might be able to accomplish with a longer timeframe.

The 2022 Illinois State Fair Butter Cow is housed within a polygonal industrial refrigerator, the cow itself stands on a rotating pedestal in the lineage of rotary pie displays and automobile turntables, its elevated stature and aptly lit display booming out to say, that “This is what you came to see.” Windows adorn all sides of the display unit, perfect for facilitating the slightly uncomfortable moment of you catching me looking at you looking at the butter cow. One can press their nose up against the glass to get closer, although layers of muck and condensation accumulated from several years’ worth of state fairs cloud the view, not to mention the pool of liquid leaking from the refrigeration. The lack of pristine presentation conditions isn’t to denigrate the artwork by any means, and I’m not convinced the work would be improved by viewing it through Windex polished windows. If the presentation of the artwork is intended to mirror the conditions of the thing it represents, then we must go with the fact that barns and dairy facilities are far from pristine, the imperfections are what make the artwork compelling, and no one in the audience seems to mind the refrigeration coolant pooling on the ground. If eight bay windows and a rotating pedestal aren’t enough viewing perspectives, a downward 45-degree angle is available via the Butter Cow Webcam livestream on the Illinois State Fair website. Precisely why there is a livestream of the butter cow remains somewhat of a mystery.

While visiting the cow in person, the level of engagement between fellow viewers and the cow was high. The room was filled with wide eyes and excited chatter; parents, children, the elderly, and everyone in between expressed equal excitement while looking at the cow, and people stayed for much longer than the average person stares at a Rothko painting in a museum. Even prior to setting foot in the dairy building, I overheard chatter about the butter cow throughout the fairgrounds. At the entry to the building that houses the butter cow is a cow sculpture made from metal. No one stopped to look at it.

Hidden in the sculpture are thirteen hearts in reference to the thirteen essential nutrients found in milk, a detail Pratt began adding to each sculpture a few years ago as an extension of her family tradition of collecting heart shaped rocks. Hidden throughout are small hearts representing calcium, vitamin d, riboflavin, phosphorus, protein, potassium, vitamin a, vitamin b12, niacin, pantothenic acid, zinc, selenium, and iodine. While the practice of adding vitamin D to milk, which began in the 1930s, certainly appears to be a good thing, I’m mildly incensed that one of the nutrient hearts nestled in the butter cow is there because it’s artificially added to dairy products. If there’s anything more American than a cow sculpted from butter, it’s the use of technicalities to bend the truth to do one’s bidding. Granted, the infraction at hand is a minor one, and surely no ill will was meant by informing fairgoers that Vitamin D can be consumed by drinking milk, but I just can’t shake the sour taste of learning the nutrient information is somewhere west of the truth, although more things likely fall into this category than we care to admit.

This is supposedly an article and review of the 2022 Illinois State Fair Butter Cow, crafted by the esteemed butter sculptor Sarah Pratt. It is, and has been that, but it is also a reminder, at the very least for myself, that the art one looks at is not always for oneself.

There’s a large swath of participants in the contemporary art world who likely have little interest in butter cow sculptures, or for that matter, any artwork that requires wading through a sea of corn dog stands and a dense cotton candy air in order to reach the viewing room. There’s no butter cow NFT and it won’t be on view at Art Basel this year; it’s a Springfield, Illinois exclusive. I mention this contemporary art world because I’m a part of it and have firsthand witnessed art viewers (including myself) swiftly dismiss an artwork they don’t understand, often when it comes from a culture foreign to them, or one perceived as being of a supposedly lesser sophistication. I’ve spent a good deal of time stewing over holes to melt in the butter cow, fact-checking nutritional information. And for what end?

Looking at art, and making art, are often solitary activities, which often render them as selfish pursuits which take the form of objects that reflect larger cultural trends, concerns, and cultural goods serving the public interest. This dynamic, however, leads to situations where the art looker becomes upset when they view an artwork they cannot comprehend. (“This isn’t art!”) How could the all-knowing, sophisticated art looker, fail to comprehend the significance and purpose of the artwork in front of them? Surely, they’re up to date on all information required to understand all artwork of relevance to them.

I’m fascinated by the butter cow, I’m in deep admiration of the butter cow, I’m in full support of butter cows to be sculpted for years to come, but I can’t claim to fully understand the butter cow. Does it matter that the sculptural details veer towards the uncanny, or that there’s a heart for an artificially added nutrient? Perhaps I don’t understand the butter cow because I’m trying to understand the butter cow. Despite my not knowing what the butter cow means, I can walk away knowing it means quite a bit to a lot of people. And maybe it doesn’t need to mean anything at all. Maybe I should just let the butter cow be, and that just might be good enough.

Miles MacClure is an artist and occasional writer based in Chicago. He is currently a Visual Arts Teaching Fellow at the University of Chicago, where he teaches classes on social media performance as an artform.