SALT LAKE CITY — Every year at the Utah State Fair, at a place called Promontory Hall in the creative arts section, Debbie Brown and Matt McNaughtan do some serious recycling.
They take 700 pounds of pure creamery butter and turn it back into a cow.
OK, not a literal cow. But a cow lifelike enough no one would be surprised if it moved and said “moo.”
Debbie and Matt are sculptors. The week before the fair begins they hole up in a 10-foot by 7-foot refrigerated stall with the thermostat set at 42 degrees and in full view of passers-by start shaping the butter.
Every so often they have to come out and get their circulation going.
“It’s like sculpting in the Antarctic,” says Matt.
It’s all in the name of art. And dairy. The tradition dates back to the fall of 1998, when the Utah Dairy Council — an organization now called Dairy West — decided that the best way to draw attention to the healthy virtues of dairy products would be to create a cow sculpture made entirely out of butter.
It wasn’t an original idea. The state fair in Iowa was already doing cow sculptures, which were proving to be a big hit, so the dairy farmers flew in a woman named Duffy Lyon from Iowa to show artists here how to make an anatomically correct cow.
Those artists were Barbara Westover, a wood carver and dairy farmer’s wife from Lewiston, and the above-mentioned Debbie Brown, a BYU art graduate from Murray whose husband, Tim, was doing public relations on the campaign.
Neither woman had worked with butter before, but as anyone knows who has ever tried to spread butter on a slice of toast when the butter just came out of the fridge, butter is moldable when it’s cold. Basically it’s clay as long as it isn’t too frozen.
Matt McNaughtan, a high school art teacher, took over for Barbara when she stepped down in 2007. This year marks his 13th butter cow, while Debbie has had a hand in all 22.
For Debbie, it’s been a way of indulging her passion while putting sculpting mostly on the back shelf to raise seven kids. “Sculpting is my hobby,” she says. “It’s my release.”
Every Labor Day for the past 22 years, like clockwork, she leaves the kids with Tim and heads to the cooler at Promontory Hall.
Four days later, give or take, the sculpture is completed. She and Matt finished this year’s version — a cow magician doing various tricks in keeping with the 2019 state fair theme “It’s a Kinda Magic” — on Thursday evening, Sept. 5, coinciding with the fair’s opening day.
Barring a power outage, the butter cow exhibit will remain on display until the fair ends Sept. 15.
Like his sculpting partner Debbie, Matt did not grow up dreaming of one day molding cows out of butter. But sculpting is sculpting, “and making nothing become something is always satisfying,” he says.
Matt, who teaches pottery at Wasatch High School in Heber City, doesn’t stop at cows. He sculpts numerous other animals, although not out of butter. He does fish, birds, ferrets, cats, goats, guinea pigs, even zebras. He once sculpted a horse a day for an entire month. But dogs are a specialty. He has captured the likenesses of hundreds of pet dogs for their owners, as can be seen on his website: farmboymatt.com.
“I try to capture the essence of animals,” says Matt, who grew up on a farm. “Art is just letting out what is inside of us.”
In past fairs, Matt and Debbie have done Pokemon theme cows, cows in a royal wedding, rock band cows, exercising cows. One year they did a bat cow, another year a cow being abducted by an alien.
Every year it’s something different, but also something the same. Once the fair has run its course, the 700 pounds of butter gets melted down, frozen and stored away.
Next year they’ll warm it up to 42 degrees and turn it back into a cow.