Butter sculpting has been a uniquely American art form for nearly 150 years. Thanks to dairy companies and state fairs, butter art became a tradition and a celebration of the American Midwest.
But should we consider butter sculptures “art”? After all, we don’t see butter sculptures in museums. And many butter sculptors don’t have formal artistic training.
Today, we’re offering a little history of butter sculpting and getting into some of the more famous butter artists. Then we’ll see if we can answer the big question – is it art?
Let’s dig in!
What are Butter Sculptures?
The history of butter sculpting in the U.S. dates back to 1876. The first known American butter sculptor was Caroline Shawk Brooks, who lived and worked on a farm.
Brooks dreamed of becoming a fine art sculptor and working with materials such as marble. But she cemented her reputation as a butter sculptor when her sculpture, “Dreaming Iolanthe,” gained notoriety at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition.
Thanks to Brooks, butter sculpting became a medium of uniquely American folk art. Dairy companies commissioned butter sculptures for promotional purposes, and the craft caught on over time. Butter sculpting was popular at state fairs until the Great Depression and World War II. However, it came back in style after the war ended and remains popular today.
The most iconic subject of American butter sculpture is the butter cow, which is created and displayed annually at various state fairs. Each year at the Iowa State Fair, a butter artist creates a realistic, life-size sculpture of a cow. The process can take anywhere from two to 12 days.
Butter sculpting isn’t just unique to the U.S. Many other countries have a history of butter sculpting, including Australia, Canada, and Tibet. Butter sculptures are considered more of a folk craft in Australia and Canada.
However, they’re actually part of an ancient religious practice for many Tibetan Buddhists. They still use yak butter and dye to create temporary symbols for the Tibetan New Year and other religious celebrations.
Why Is Butter Sculpting Important?
Tibetan butter sculpting originated in the 7th century. A group of Tibetan Buddhists needed to provide traditional offerings in a temple. Unfortunately, many local trees and flowers usually used for offerings had died. So, the Tibetans got creative and carved offerings from blocks of butter instead.
The protocol for creating butter offerings is very complex. Tibetan monks cleanse themselves and participate in religious rituals before discussing the concept and theme of a butter sculpture. Once the idea is approved, labor is divided evenly among the monks. They work in rooms chilled to 32 degrees Fahrenheit to create intricate sculptures.
Although butter sculpting in the U.S. doesn’t follow a religious tradition, its history is pretty lofty. Butter sculpting became popular among women without access to art training as well as established artists.
In 1901, the state of Minnesota commissioned a professional sculptor named John K. Daniels to make a butter replica of a government building and paid him $2,000!
Contemporary butter sculpting has more in common with clay sculpture than you might think. Artists who create large pieces use wire outlines as support bases and mold butter around them. Many butter sculptures take dozens of hours, or even weeks, to complete.
Who Was the Most Famous American Butter Artist?
Caroline Shawk Brooks was the first butter artist to achieve notoriety in the U.S. She’s arguably the most famous American butter artist. Brooks was born in 1840 in Cincinnati, Ohio, but moved to a farm in Arkansas after marrying her husband. There, she began sculpting butter to help supplement the family’s income after their crop failed in 1867.
As Brooks’s sculptures became more ambitious, ice became more commercially accessible. This allowed Brooks to create larger sculptures and preserve them for extended periods. Her “Dreaming Iolanthe” was first displayed in a Cincinnati art gallery before making national headlines at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
Brooks eventually traveled to Europe, where she worked in studios and displayed her butter art in galleries. She completed many commissions, including a sculpture of President Ulysses S. Grant.
The “Butter Woman,” as people called her, left her mark on the art world by creating space for female sculptors in a traditionally male medium. Brooks died in 1913 at the age of 73.
Who Are Some Other Famous Butter Artists?
Caroline Shawk Brooks pioneered butter sculpting, but dozens of artists have carried on her legacy since. Brooks probably never expected that “Dreaming Iolanthe” would inspire an entire art movement!
Let’s explore the lives of some contemporary well-known butter artists.
Norma “Duffy” Lyon
Norma “Duffy” Lyon’s interest in butter sculpting began in 1958. She saw the butter cow sculpted for that year’s Iowa State Fair and claimed she could do a better job. After shadowing the original artist in 1959, Lyon took over as the third-ever butter cow sculptor for the state fair in 1960.
Lyon created butter sculptures until her retirement in 2006. Some of her subjects included Elvis Presley, John Wayne, and even a butter rendition of The Last Supper. She came out of retirement in 2007 to create a sculpture for then-presidential-candidate Barack Obama. “Duffy” died in 2011 at the age of 81.
Sarah Pratt began sculpting butter as Norma “Duffy” Lyon’s apprentice. At age 28, Pratt took over for Lyon as the Iowa State Fair’s official butter cow sculptor. Pratt works as a special education teacher during the school year and a full-time butter artist during the summer.
Pratt likens butter sculpting to sculpting in other mediums. She hopes to elevate the art form by creating a curriculum that includes butter sculpting in Des Moines public schools’ art programs.
Jim Victor and Marie Pelton
This husband-and-wife team of food artists and butter sculptors is in Pennsylvania. Unlike many of their butter art counterparts, Victor and Pelton are formally trained. Both graduated from the sculpture program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Although Victor and Pelton work with various foods, butter is their primary medium. The team exhibits at several state fairs across the country and frequently takes commissions for companies. Victor and Pelton have created sculptures of cows, farm equipment, and people.
Where Can I See Butter Sculptures?
Are you hoping to see a butter sculpture up close? If you’re in the U.S., you might be just a quick drive from some of the country’s highest-quality butter art! And even if you can’t see butter art in person, the Internet is a great place to check out this unique craft.
Let’s explore some places where you can see butter sculptures.
The Iowa State Fair
Butter sculptures have been an Iowa State Fair tradition for over 100 years, since 1911.
Artists also create secondary “companion” sculptures displayed alongside the butter cow sculpture. These often depict famous people or iconic scenes. Examples include Charles Schultz’s Peanuts Gang, a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, and Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk.
The Minnesota State Fair
The Minnesota State Fair is another great place to see butter art. This fair’s butter art scene focuses on live portrait sculpture, mostly of aspiring Dairy Princesses. Visitors to the Minnesota State Fair can watch the fair’s official sculptor create one 3-D butter image daily. Each sculpture takes anywhere from six to eight hours to complete.
Given the climate control required to maintain the integrity of butter art, it’s not a medium that’s viewable everywhere. If you can’t make it to the Midwest for a state fair, you can still see butter art online.
You can easily find photos of the annual state fair butter cows and companion sculptures. Jim Victor and Marie Pelton’s website, JimVictorMariePelton.com, is also a great place to view these prolific artists’ butter work. Their butter art gallery includes sculptures of people, architecture, animals, and more.
So, Is Butter Sculpting Really Art?
Despite its quaint roots, butter sculpting is a bona fide art form. Butter artists like Caroline Shawk Brooks and Norma “Duffy” Lyon proved that butter sculpture requires skill, patience, and technique, just like any other sculpting medium.
Many butter artists may not have formal artistic training. But training isn’t the only thing that makes a person an artist. And sculptors like Jim Victor and Marie Pelton prove that even people with artistic backgrounds are interested in this medium.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!