Fast Company

A Day in the Life of Work: Udder Artistry

In her 44 years as the butter sculptress at the Iowa State Fair, Norma Lyon has churned out statues of everything from cows to Elvis to the Last Supper.

Norma "Duffy" Lyon, 74 butter sculptress : Toledo, Iowa

"They call me the Butter-Cow Lady. For 44 years, I have sculpted cows out of butter at the Iowa State Fair. My big mouth got me the job. In 1959, I saw a photograph of a butter cow that the previous sculptor had made. It looked all rat-headed, with the horns coming out of the wrong place. I had taken two sculpting classes at Iowa State University, and I knew cows, since we milked 300 Jerseys at our dairy farm. I told the boss at the fairgrounds, 'I can do better than that.' The following year, they offered me the job.

"I sculpt every breed of dairy cow. This year, I carved an Ayrshire. It took 600 pounds of unsalted, five-year-old butter and a week of eight-hour days to complete it. I also sculpted a Harley-Davidson V-Rod motorcycle to celebrate Harley's 100th anniversary. In past years, I've carved John Wayne, Elvis, and Garth Brooks. My biggest project was the Last Supper. But the motorcycle was the most complicated; I had to get the pipes, brake lines, air filters, and other details just right. I didn't want to get heckled by Harley owners.

"I work in a refrigerated display case, where the temperature is 38 to 42 degrees. I put on three layers of sweatshirts to stay warm, but I can't wear gloves--I need to feel the butter. When the fair ends for the season, we take the sculpture apart, repack the butter into buckets, and freeze it. I work hard on my sculptures, but I can't let myself get too attached to them. Next year, we're celebrating the fair's 150th anniversary. I've already planned my sculpture: a giant, three-layered birthday cake. Yes, it will be very heavy on the butter."

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