It’s state fair season, and you know what that means: amazing state fair food, crazy state fair competitions, and … butter sculpting! “What?” you ask. Yes, butter sculpting. It’s been a part of the Minnesota State Fair, which is consistently named one of the best state fairs in the country, for more than 40 years.
The butter-sculpting booth (sponsored by the Midwest Dairy Association) is a perennial fan favorite at the Minnesota State Fair. It’s the only live-sculpting booth of its kind, and Creative Genius Linda Christensen is at the center of it all. For 42 years, she’s live-sculpted each Princess Kay of the Milky Way (a competition currently celebrating 60 years running) contestant in front of a growing crowd.
So, how does one become a butter sculptor?
As a sculpture student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the early 1970’s, Linda was known for creating larger-than-life female figures. That talent caught the eyes of her professors and officials at the Minnesota State Fair, who were looking for an artist to realize their vision of live butter sculpting during the fair. Linda was game for trying, and a tradition was born.
Butter sculpting didn’t exactly start with Linda, though she’s definitely made it famous. The idea really came from American frontier wives who would press handmade molds into butter simply to make it more decorative.
After more than 40 years, you’d think Linda would have sworn off butter by now. But she claims to still love the stuff. “I forget that it’s butter,” she says. “It’s just like working with a medium.”
Linda works in a cooler set to 38-40 degrees, and she and the princesses all wear snowsuits during the process. (The 12 princesses each year come from dairy-farming families, and many of the women are studying agriculture-related disciplines in college.) Linda uses everything from kitchen tools to piano wire to craft and shape each woman’s face into the 90-pound blocks of specially made butter.
Some princesses have frozen their butter likenesses and kept them for years, even displaying them at their weddings. One recent princess melted her sculpture down and served it to community members along with corn on the cob. Talk about buttering up the neighbors.
Born and bred (and buttered—I couldn’t help it) in Minnesota, Linda now lives most of the year in Oceanside, California, where she trades her down jacket and butter knife for seashells and succulents, selling her planted creations at local craft fairs and farmers markets. “Succulents are very sculptural,” Linda says. “Maybe that’s why I like them.”
Linda plans on keeping up the tradition at the Minnesota State Fair as long as she can, or until a new sculptor takes over. (She has no successor waiting in the wings yet.) For Linda, it’s about celebrating a place and a culture that’s as unique as her butter-based art form. “A lot of people have nostalgia for family farms and treasure those farming communities,” Linda says. “That’s what this is really about.”
If Linda’s story has made you hungry, why not learn how to make your own butter? We can’t claim it’ll be sculpture-grade, but it’ll taste great on your bagel or biscuit.