In the high-cholesterol world of Midwestern state fairs, where dairy cows crowd 4-H barns and no food can escape the deep fryer, Norma “Duffy” Lyon was a giant.
For more than four decades, she was the queen of the butter sculpture.
Cows. Elvis. John Wayne. President Eisenhower. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper. With her steady hands, Lyon molded and shaped massive blocks of frozen fat into life-size forms that were part humble craft, part high art.
Lyon’s family announced the sad news: The artist died Sunday morning, at the Marshalltown Medical and Surgical Center in Iowa, of a stroke. She was 81.
Her medium may seem strange to some, but Lyon was surrounded by her raw material. Born on July 29, 1929, in Nashville, she moved to the Midwest and studied animal science at Iowa State University. While at school, family members say, she discovered her talent for turning mounds of unlikely material into statuary.
“She headed up her sorority’s team in a snow sculpture contest, and there was an art teacher there who saw it,” her daughter Michelle Juhl told The Times on Monday. “She won the contest. He asked her to take his classes.”
She met her husband, G. Joe Lyon, at school. The couple married and, after graduation, moved to Toledo, Iowa, to run the family’s dairy, Lyon Jerseys.
Lyon first picked up her culinary chisel for the Iowa State Fair in 1960, fair officials said Monday. A year earlier, Lyon had taken a break from showing off the family’s dairy cows at the fairgrounds, and wandered past several farming art exhibits. There, she came across a dairy cow statue, made of butter churned at a local creamery.
She wasn’t impressed.
“Mom thought the cow looked too much like a caricature,” Juhl said. “Then, the job of butter cow sculptor opened up at the fair, and she was in. The story goes that she said, ‘If I can’t make a better one, I’ll eat it.’”
Though the tradition of using fat to create figurines dates back centuries, the “butter cow” has been an iconic feature of the annual summer gathering in Des Moines since the early 1900s. Fair officials have said the heartland tradition may date back even earlier.
Back then, some artists opted for lard.
Lyon’s cows were no tiny figurines. They typically stood more than 5 feet tall, were made out of 600 pounds of Iowa butter smeared onto metal mesh and wooden frames. Lyon used the warmth of her hands to roughly pack the butter into balls, then smoothed them onto the frame into bovine muscles. Then, she reached for dental tools to make fine creases and add tiny details.
All this work happened inside a refrigerated gallery of sorts, which was carefully kept chilled to 40 degrees.
“The kids, we got to take turns going with her to the fair to make the cows,” Juhl said. “It was so cold in there, we had to wear our winter clothes in the middle of summer. We’d take breaks to go warm up outside, then go back into the cold.”
It took Lyon three days to sculpt one cow. The completed bovine was then showcased inside the refrigerated building. Typically, each cow was enough to butter 19,200 slices of toast, according to the Midwest Dairy Assn.
Initially, Lyon ordered up new vats of fat each summer. When the fair ended, the butter would be sent off and made into dog food. Later, to cut down on costs, she started recycling her materials by reusing the butter. And she was known to keep a keen eye on the thermostat.
There are, after all, inherent problems with using butter as a medium. In 2000, the temperature inside her display case in the fair’s Agriculture Building went up slightly. Suddenly, her cow’s belly slid off. (A rushed order for more butterfat helped her repair the damage.)
Over time, word spread of the Midwestern farm wife and her talent with butterfat. Requests flooded in from county fairs and agricultural groups across the country, all eager for their own buttery Jerseys, creamy Holsteins and fatty Guernseys. One pork association asked her to carve a pig out of pork lard.
She also expanded her portfolio. In 1997, she unveiled a 6-foot replica of Elvis, complete with a butter microphone, a curly lock of butter hair falling down his forehead, his mouth open and lips curled.
People clamored to see the King in the refrigerated dairy case at the fair. The line stretched out of the Iowa Turkey Federation exhibit, past the Iowa Egg Council booth, beyond the free beef and pork samples.
At the time, s said she had initially wanted to sculpt Elvis out of white tallow, but beef officials “didn’t want anything to do with it. They’re so down on fat, they almost had a fit. I knew the butter people would jump on it.”
After 46 years, Lyon retired from sculpting butter for the Iowa State Fair in 2006, citing health concerns. She handed off her tools to her apprentice Sarah Pratt, a fellow Iowan sculptor and school teacher. Some of Lyon’s grandchildren continue to help Pratt create the cows.
This year marks the Iowa State Fair’s 100th year of the butter cow statues. Fair officials said Monday there are plans underway to honor Duffy and her role in the butter exhibit this August.
Lyon is survived by her husband Joe, who continues to help milk the family’s 400-plus dairy cows in Toledo; their nine children; 23 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.