A tradition at the Kansas State Fair
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, butter art became a popular attraction at state fairs and national events. Like cream rising to the top, butter sculpting, especially of cows, continues to be a top draw at the Kansas State Fair.
Sarah Pratt, head butter sculptor at the Kansas State Fair going on seven years, is proud to continue the butter art tradition each year.
Her background in butter sculpting goes back 30 years to 1991 when, at age 14, she began assisting Norma “Duffy” Lyon at the Iowa State Fair. Lyon had been butter sculptor at that fair since 1960. Ten years later, Norma became head butter sculptor at both the Kansas and Illinois state fairs.
Pratt took over the helm at the Iowa State Fair in 2006 after Lyon retired following the fair’s previous year, handing Pratt her tools. “Using the same tools that she used is so important to me,” Pratt says. “She was such a strong influence in building my confidence and teaching me about public speaking and sculpting.”
Just like Lyon, Pratt branched out 10 years later to become top butter sculptor at both the Kansas and Illinois state fairs.
“The timing was just right,” Pratt says. “The persons who had done butter sculpting there were retiring.”
The theme of the Kansas State Fair in 2016, Pratt’s first year, was Blast Off! “They have an amazing space museum in Hutchinson,” she says. “I played off that theme. Besides a cow, I did a little boy holding a rocket made from an ear of corn. The boy is supposed to be milking the cow but got carried away with his rocket, spilt the milk, and is standing on the pail holding the rocket in one hand stretching that arm up high.” She modeled the boy after her son, Dean, when he was four years old.
In 2017 the theme was Get Your Fair On. She carved a girl in a pedal-pulling competition, who was pulling a cart holding a giant pumpkin.
The theme for 2018 was Youth at the Fair. Pratt thought about how youth connected to herself and the dairy industry. She recalled that she had initially started at the Iowa State Fair washing a cow using too much soap! She sculpted a girl holding a scrub brush in one hand on the cow and a hose in the other hand with water splashing on the viewing windows.
“People would take a photo across the three-sided glass and it looked like they’re being sprayed with water,” Pratt recalls. “That was a fun one!”
The 80th anniversary of the release of “The Wizard of Oz” movie was the 2019 theme. Pratt carved full-size renditions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, Dorothy holding Toto, and Glinda, the Good Witch. No fair was held in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Last year, Pratt sculpted a butter bison. Hailing from Iowa, she admits she had to study up on that creature. “I watched documentaries about bison to see how they moved, their habitat, the difference between female and male bison, and the difference between plains bison and wood bison.”
Pratt realized a male bison would have to be scaled down to fit within the space she had to fill. She decided on carving a female that still ended up 700 pounds, which is calculated by the amount of butter it took to complete it.
“I wanted to include a baby bison with its mother but there wasn’t space after I finished the female.”
Pratt says some people think the figures are composed completely of butter. However, the butter is layered over an armature, which has an adjustable head piece and metal and flexible wires attached to a wood base. The armature adds stability and strength to the structure.
In Kansas and Illinois, her right-hand man is her husband, Andy. He shapes the armature for the figures, softens butter, and does some sculpting.
“In Kansas, he sculpted a cat. The little kids were more interested in the cat than the cow,” she says. He also sculpts mice, which along with cats, are commonly found in milking barns.
What typically takes her three weeks at the Iowa State Fair, because she lives close by and can take her time, is condensed into four days at the Kansas State Fair.
“It takes the same amount of hours but much longer days,” she says.
Altogether, Pratt and her husband log about 90 total hours to complete the figures. She sets up and starts sculpting on the day before the fair opens on the Friday after Labor Day. Working in a 42-degree Fahrenheit refrigerated room, they complete the main piece and an accompanying one. Onlookers are fascinated as they watch her creations take shape through display windows in the Pride of Kansas Building.
Two years ago, the Kansas State Fair launched a butter sculpture contest for kids and adults. “They get to come inside and try their hand at sculpting,” Pratt says. “I hand out ribbons based on the best. It’s fun to interact with the visitors at the fair.” This year’s Butter Sculpture Contest will be held on Saturday, Sept. 10, at 1 p.m.
After the fair concludes, a crew in Kansas dismantles the sculptures. The butter is kept in cold storage and recycled for use the following year.
Every other year includes a cow, which will be part of the 2022 exhibit.
Pratt says she is humbled to carry on the butter art tradition at the Kansas State Fair.