The announcement, barely discernible, crackled over the public address system at 10:55 a.m. Friday in the Pride of Kansas building.
But the word was out. The butter sculpture would be revealed on this first day of the Kansas State Fair. A crowd flocked to peer into a refrigerated room next to the scarecrows dressed as “American Gothic” farmers. The windows were covered with yellow paper.
This is a banner year for butter sculpture. Not only is this centennial fair doing more to showcase the craft, but now Hollywood is taking notice.
With minor flourish, fair employees ripped the paper off the windows to reveal the secret inside: a train made of butter.
In the first car, a life-size conductor drove, one arm raised, finger pointing skyward in alarm. The car behind him was tipped over, a little girl inside spilling out.
As the crowd tried to make sense of the tableau, sculptor Sharon BuMann entered the display area from a door at the back and walked over to the little butter girl. She pulled off the plastic covering the feet to reveal – ruby slippers.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” said Brynn Boxberger, a 9-year-old from Great Bend visiting the fair with her classmates. “I bet it’s pretty hard to make sculptures out of butter.”
For the fair’s 100th anniversary, BuMann went full-bore Kansas, with Toto too (colored black with food coloring). More significantly, though, at the request of fair organizers, she has pulled back the wizard’s curtain on the actual sculpting process, rarely seen by the public.
She has left some of the sculpture unfinished so fairgoers can watch her work on it over the weekend.
BuMann used to let visitors at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas watch her work, until one day, on her way to a bathroom break, she overheard one woman snottily announce: I could do a better job buttering a baked potato.
“And it was the second day in,” BuMann said. “I just kind of went, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ If she can’t read ‘work in progress’ only under duress do people see me work normally.”
As popular as butter sculptures are at state fairs — it’s one of the biggest crowd-pleasers here — only a handful of people create them. And the ranks are getting thinner with each passing year.
“They’re getting old,” BuMann said.
Norma “Duffy” Lyon, unarguably the most famous butter sculptor of all, carved butter cows for more than 40 years at the Iowa State Fair. She died in June 2011 at age 81.
She was most proud, she once said, of her life-size reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” — Jesus and his 12 apostles fashioned out of 2,000 pounds of butter.
Who now will wear that buttery crown? Will it be BuMann, whose repertoire includes butter Elvis, butter Santa, butter Marilyn Monroe and once, an Egyptian tomb, King Tut and all?
Hollywood, for one, respects her work. The world of butter sculpting is about to get a spate of publicity next month when the movie “Butter” hits theaters. It stars Jennifer Garner and Olivia Wilde as competitive butter sculptors.
BuMann recently received a call from the movie studio asking her to watch the film and share her thoughts on it.
This week she watched a trailer online and was, to put it kindly, aghast that in one scene, Garner wears eye protection while working.
“She’s wearing goggles!” BuMann exclaimed. “And jewelry!”
‘Get to go crazy’
Jennifer Garner might wear pearls while carving a car out of a boulder of butter, but that’s a sham. Sculpting butter is dirty, back-breaking, bone-chilling and quite possibly, BuMann believes, hazardous to your health.
And the only “jewelry” she wears while working are the magnetized rubber bracelets that keep elbows pain-free; she has tendinitis.
She was so covered up as she worked Friday that people couldn’t tell whether that was a man or woman under all those layers. It’s a constant 37 degrees inside, so she suits up in an Under Armour turtleneck and tights under a rain suit, wool socks, rubber boots and water-resistant gloves.
“People will ask, ‘How long have you been in there?’ They think I come in at 8 and stay in there until 8 at night,” she said. “I wish I could stay in that long. But it’s 2 1/2 hours max. Then I have to take a break and start moving around.”
BuMann, 59, has been sculpting butter for going on 20 years, and at one time she worked seven fairs across the country. She’s scaled back to just three — Kansas, Texas and Illinois — mostly because “it’s really tough on your body.”
There’s a lot of heavy lifting. The butter comes in 55-pound boxes and buckets. The softened butter, which she’s constantly scooping and smearing, is heavy in her hands like wet plaster.
“Physically, you need to be in condition to do this, and that’s one reason I started doing triathlons,” she said.
She’s been coming to the Kansas fair since 1999. She lives in central New York, where she made annual pilgrimages as a child to the state fair in Syracuse.
“The only things I would go to the fair to see were the butter sculptures, and then I’d watch the horse show,” she said.
“It’s always the butter sculpture. That was the one thing at the fair that changed every year. Everything else stayed the same.”
In college she earned a degree in sculpture and put her fine arts experience to work by creating bronze sculptures and monuments for public spaces. In 1993, “things started to slow down” and she was looking for more work when her husband found an ad in their local newspaper.
She didn’t get the job.
“They hired a man who said he’d had 10 years of experience in butter,” she said. “I knew the man, and I knew that he didn’t.”
And wouldn’t you know it? The man’s sculpture was a flop. Literally. It collapsed.
BuMann was hired the next year, translating her skills with clay to butter, using all the same tools.
Going in, she knew she wanted to make sculptures that were life-size. That first year in New York, she sculpted a tableau of a grandfather and granddaughter in a cornfield, the old man kneeling down with one arm around the little girl, explaining the crop.
Soon, she developed a calling card. She tucks tiny creatures —like field mice, toads and snakes — into her pieces. At the Illinois fair there’s a sign outside the butter sculpture gallery prompting visitors to look for the little add-ons.
“Doing butter sculptures is the one time of year that I just get to go crazy, just do fun stuff,” she said. “When you do a monument you have to follow a certain format. I do have leeway with that, as well, but it’s not the same.”