Sarah Pratt might be the Rodin of dairy-based art.
The resident of West Des Moines, Iowa, has since 2006 been part of a proud lineage in a very specific subset of sculpting.
She carves, in marvelous detail, the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair.
The legend goes that Michelangelo would sit in the quarry at Carrara, in northwestern Tuscany, and let God reveal to him what resided in the marble there.
The statue of David was one of these revelations.
Even being the instrument of this faith, the artist had to suffer. Pope Julius put him on the scaffolding inside the Sistine Chapel, a literal pain in the neck.
But he didn’t have to do his work in a 40-degree cooler, as does Pratt.
The butter cow begins from a base of wood and wire, metal and mesh. From there, 600 pounds of butter get slathered on, enough for 19,200 pieces of toast, State Fair officials say.
Pratt apprenticed for 15 years before rising to the lead butter sculptor, only the fifth one in the history of the fair.
The first Iowa butter cow got carved in 1911 by John Karl Daniels, the Norwegian immigrant who would go on to do butter renditions of President Taft astride a Republican elephant and Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson beside a donkey.
In later years, Daniels would do the Leif Erikson statue in front of the Minnesota State Capitol, glad in that case, no doubt, to be working in bronze and not butter.
Thousands of people will crowd in to see this year’s butter cow in Des Moines, the fair having opened last week.
Along with presidential candidates and food on a stick, the bovine arts, with raw material coming from cows, always prove a big draw.
People living on either American coast might find such displays provincial, the snobbiest of whom will scoff at the yokels.
It will follow that folks in the nation’s middle will not give much of a hoot about these observations.
Something of a cultural commotion arose a couple of months ago when a New York-based journalist, sent to Iowa to cover a presidential candidate, wrote about the terror of unpaved roads and the lack of almond milk.
In a New Yorker’s view, Iowa is a Native American word that means “Land of Rubes.” And Iowans can’t waste time paving roads because of the energy expended in working a churn.
As a Middle American myself, I find within me the resources to negotiate the wilds of country lanes and the depths of an urban subway system. I’ve been to Trenton, Missouri, and Trenton, New Jersey, and neither really flummoxed me.
I like almond milk, and I find it without much difficulty at stores in the nation’s outback. Truth be told, though, I’d rather eat a state fair corn dog than some of those New York City entrees that look like a lady’s hat at a royal wedding.
Our political divisions and our cultural divisions feel profound at times, but Americans have long been a mishmash of highbrow and lowbrow and the spaces between. Our least useful moments come when the words “elite” and “bumpkin” get used to describe fellow citizens.
To me, fellow humans appear capable of appreciating Andy Warhol and the Iowa butter cow. Let that be the place of artistic assimilation.
In sculpture, we can find common purpose. Melting a cow sculpture, while adding garlic, wine and lemon, can also create a nice scampi sauce.
God bless America, I say.