A ‘Moo’-ving piece of art: How the Utah State Fair’s Butter Cow comes to life

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – It’s hard to imagine any two people with a stranger working climate than artists Matt McNaughtan and Debbie Brown.

Working in a large walk-in freezer-turned sculpting studio, the two have been carving and crafting one of the state’s quirkiest annual traditions, the butter cow sculpture at the Utah State Fair.

The silliness of the situation isn’t lost on the duo.

“One sec, I got to wipe the butter off my fingers. Literally, butterfingers,” McNaughtan laughs while speaking to ABC4.com outside of the freezer.

Bundled up in layers while working inside in a climate-controlled environment set in the mid-40 degrees, McNaughtan and Brown have spent around 50 hours or so molding the edible medium into a beach-themed work of art, complete with a giant butter cow relaxing under an umbrella, drinking a glass of milk, with the support of Dairy West.

According to officials, the statue will stand 6-feet tall by 10-feet wide and will use approximately 800 pounds of butter when it’s finished and on display at the fair, which begins on Thursday.

For years, the butter cow sculpture – with a different theme in each iteration – has been a must-see attraction at the fair. Thomas S. Monson, the late former President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was known for cracking a joke that he wanted to see two things at the fair, the real cows and the butter cows.

No offense to the livestock, but the butter sculpture might take the cake.

The tradition began in 1998 when Brown, a traditionally trained sculptor, was approached with the unusual request to learn to create a butter cow, along with fellow artist Barbara Westover, after fair officials flew in a sculptor who had done butter cows at the Iowa State Fair.

While sculpting with butter may seem odd, Brown explains that working with the dairy product is actually quite similar to traditional techniques.

“I loved getting into butter sculpting, it was just a fun creative process and a lot like working with clay, because you can carve away or add to it,” she says. “It’s easy to work with so it’s been really fun.”

Early Utah butter cows began as anatomically correct re-creations of prize-winning cows. When McNaughtan became involved years ago, the look changed into more cartoony, playful imaginations of cows doing various things.

The two have challenged themselves with cows jumping over the moon, dancing the tango, participating in the Hunger Games, and playing in a punk rock band. When the wildly popular mobile game, Pokemon Go, took over popular culture in 2016, the two brought a cow playing the game along with a Pikachu and other pocket monsters to life.

Some builds have been more challenging than others.

One year, while trying to install a tree-shaped part of the sculpture in the display, Brown, and McNaughtan had to install hooks in the top of the freezer, so it could support itself and not bring down the rest of the design with its weight. Those hooks came in handy in later years to hang a butter spaceship from the ceiling, Brown says.

While the two enjoy their work, which consists of building the cow’s frame as a metal skeleton before covering it with the butter, which is the same butter that has been melted down and stored after the fair’s run for a few years, there can be some difficulties for Brown and McNaughtan.

“With the blowers just blowing right on you, your fingers start to get cold and we’ll occasionally take a step outside and go walk around outside of the sun to get the feeling back in our fingers and stuff,” McNaughtan explains while adding that he has to take off his work clothes and keep them in a box in a shed each night. The smell of his art can follow him home.

But does their work make them hungry?

Brown says no, the butter on the cow has gotten a bit of an unappetizing look over the years of use and re-use. McNaughtan, however, says sort of.

“It’s funny, yesterday I had toast and was spreading it on and was eating it and then when I came to start throwing the butter on the sculpture was just kind of like, this is the same stuff that I just put on my toast,” he says with a smile.

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