A Study in Buttery Bovines

When she was a little girl Caroline Shawk dreamt of being an artist. She painted. She drew. She sculpted childish figures with clay from the creek. By age twelve she had won her first art award for her fine wax flowers. Then in 1862 when she was twenty-two, she married a railroad worker named Samuel Brooks, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Within a few years she and her husband had moved to a farm near Helena, Arkansas and, an artist to her core, Caroline found a new medium calling to her. Many of the farm wives around her, in order to better attract customers for their butter, used molds to makes their product into simple decorative shapes. Of course Caroline thought she could do better and she began carving intricate shapes by hand.

It wasn’t long before people started calling her the Butter Lady, and wondering what weird, wonderful artistic butter piece she’d come up with next. Then in 1873, she read King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz and was so moved by the character of Iolanthe, she created a sculpture of the blind princess.

Dreaming Iolanthe
Dreaming Iolanthe, A Study in Butter. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In butter.

Dreaming Iolanthe was a masterpiece. It was displayed, on ice, at a gallery in Cincinnati to a great deal of success. Even the New York Times took notice, with one critic writing that “no other American sculptress has made a face of such angelic gentleness as that of Iolanthe.”

Brooks created another version of her Iolanthe that exhibited at the 1876 world’s fair in Philadelphia, where she also participated in public demonstrations of her impressive, albeit kind of weird, skill. The artist went on to create great wonders, exhibiting her butter work in Washington DC and even in Paris. Eventually, she gained enough financial success from butter that she managed to transition to marble, but Caroline Brooks had inspired the imagination of countless (or at least a few) budding young artists, who took the fair circuit by buttery storm. So began the super weird tradition of butter sculptures at state fairs throughout the Midwest.

In the 1980s, another young girl who dreamt of creating her own form of art stood in the dairy building at the Illinois State Fair, her eyes wide as she took in the wondrous site of the traditional annual butter cow sculpture, and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Can I ride the Ferris wheel now?”

ButterCowside
If you look closely you can see a state fair goer at the window in the background asking himself, “Can I go to the beer tent now?”

And folks, that young girl grew up to write about some of the weirdest things she came across on a weekly blog that was part history, part humor, and now occasionally, part butter.

Growing up in Central Illinois, I went to the state fair almost every year, and without fail, I felt myself drawn to the dairy building, to gaze upon each year’s buttery bovine masterpiece.

I don’t get to attend the fair this year, which is ongoing through this weekend, but I do have several dear friends, including my sister who knows me pretty well, who made sure I saw pictures of this year’s cow.

ButterCowfront
An Illinois State Fair tradition since 1922.

I’m grateful to them. This has been a busy month for me, getting kids ready to head off into a new school year while preparing to launch my own unique art into the world with the release of my debut historical novel September 6th. I don’t know that my book will garner as much attention as the masterful works of the Butter Lady, but maybe someday the New York Times will take notice. A gal can dream, right?

I’d like to say a special thank you to my friend Dee Dee, who graciously agreed to let me share her photography talents on this post so that you, too, don’t have to miss this year’s Illinois State Fair butter cow.

21 thoughts on “A Study in Buttery Bovines

    1. That’s a good question! I never thought to ask. The big story about the cow this year was that it included a butter-carved sign that had the word “bicentennial” misspelled. I read that they did correct it finally. I also wondered exactly how they did that.

  1. Impressive sculpture! I venture to suggest that if it was entered in a butter sculpting contest, the opposition would be easily COWED. (I read the puns above and just had to chime in there…)

  2. Marcia Gaye

    I’m detecting a sort of herd mentality on the issue of puns.
    Surely St. Louis has a butter sculpting festival? What with Gooey Butter Cake and Butter Burgers, and Buttery Budweiser (I’m guessing that’s a real thing) all the local rage. Let us make a toast. A lot of toast.
    As for the cows I must confess I like big butter and I cannot lie.

  3. I kept expecting a mention of the movie “Butter” – about a butter-carving contest at the Iowa State Fair. I never knew the world of butter carving was real (we just go for odd-shaped vegetables here). I’m both disturbed and fascinated, and now suddenly want toast.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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