Norma Duffield Lyon, Butter Sculptor (special guest post)

This post comes to FCI from Nell Haynes, a Doctoral Candidate in Anthropology at American University. Nell's full bio follows the post.

Norma Duffield Lyon, affectionately known as “Duffy,” passed away on June 27, 2011. She was an 81 year old Iowa woman; both a farmer and an artist. Though her name never appeared in New York galleries, magazines like Artforum, practically every Iowa native gave pause at hearing of her death. For 46 years (from 1960-2006), Duffy sculpted the Iowa State Fair’s Butter Cow.
Norma Duffield Lyon with one of her creations, AP photo via
In 2003, after meeting Duffy the first time, I wrote these notes about her process:

Duffy starts with choosing a dairy cattle breed, then works from sketches or photographs. Inside of the display case that is refrigerated to 35 degrees, she places 500-600 pounds of butter (about 2,400 sticks) on an armature made of wood and chicken wire. At first, she adds large handfuls to the frame to approximate the shape of the cow, and eventually fine-tunes the form with smaller additions of butter. Working both with her hands and sculpting tools, the process takes about two weeks. 
armature for the Butter Cow, photo by author
Duffy would usually schedule her work to be finished in the first days of the fair, so that attendees could see her in process. Many fairgoers consider the Butter Cow to be the definitive fair experience. Information booth volunteers told us that the most common questions they are asked are, “Where are the bathrooms?" and "Where’s the Butter Cow?” (in the dairy building, of course). Some life-long devotees of the Butter Cow travel from the west coast, or will pay hundreds of dollars to assist with sculpting the tail through the fair’s Blue Ribbon Foundation. When the film crew stopped at a local sandwich shop for lunch, the twenty-year-old cashier told us, “Oh the Butter Cow. That thing used to make me so happy when I was a kid.”

Butter sculpture made its premiere in the United States in 1908 at the Iowa State Fair with the first Buttercow. The sculpture was sponsored by the Beatrice Creamery, who wished to display the success of the local dairy industry and promote local products. The Butter Cow as advertisement worked, with a six percent increase in sales the next year, but it also came to occupy an iconic position for locals. In essence, the Butter Cow came to symbolize enthusiasts see as Midwestern values. When former Midwest Dairy Association spokesperson, Katie Miron speaks of the Dairy industry she uses words like “hard work,” “dedication,” “wholesome” and “nutritious.” She connects these concepts to longstanding “American Values” and suggests that dairy farming, in many ways, represents the long held ideal of hard work leading to success. Butter art, for her is a way to both promote these values within the community, and communicate the values to outsiders. 
"Duffy" Lyon in 1961
with her second solo Butter Cow. Photo via TravelIowa
And, like all icons, the Butter Cow adapts to symbolize prevailing social issues and political perspectives. What was once a symbol of progress, now has come to be a nostalgic representation of a disappearing way of life. As family farms disappear and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations replace them, the Butter Cow stands as a testament to the idealization of the past and the values associated with it. 

both photos by the author
With intimate knowledge of dairy farming and cows declining, those with the expertise to sculpt accurate likenesses in butter are disappearing as well. Duffy sculpted a  Butter Cow for the Illinois State Fair as well, from 1969-2001. In 2003, many people felt the new sculptor’s work did not live up to the standard Duffy had set. I overheard numerous dairy farmers and others experienced in bovine anatomy talk of the sculpture's shortcomings. Duffy, who had earned a degree in Animal Science from Iowa State University, had an intimate knowledge of bovine anatomy. She sculpted specific breeds, and even the veins on her sculpted udders were anatomically correct. However, when the new sculptor’s cow was unveiled, a long time Dairy Association employee scoffed: “This one just looks like a mule with tits!” As lifeways change, old customs become endowed with new meaning. Butter sculptures may act as a reflector of the agricultural community. As knowledge of small family farms disappears in the wake of the rise of factory farms, these artworks lose part of their realism. However, as contexts change, art and tradition take on new implications and their relevance becomes increasingly valuable as symbols for examining the past and considering the future. 

More about the author:
 A doctoral candidate at American University with a concentration in Race, Gender, and Social Justice, Nell Haynes holds a Bachelor of Science Degree from Northwestern University in Anthropology and Theater. Her research addresses themes of violence, performance, audience interpretation, and gender and ethnic identity in Latin America. Her dissertation, "Chola in a Choke Hold: Discourses of Violence and Audience Interpretation in Bolivian Lucha Libre," explores the ways indigenous women represent violence, resisting, incorporating, and shifting cultural discourses. She is the recipient of the 2010 Roseberry-Nash Award for best paper in Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology from the American Anthropological Association.


  1. Since I understand that fried butter is an Iowa State Fair treat, maybe the cow could become fried butter burgers on the last day, or would that be disrespectful to the artist (and the spirit of the cow)?

  2. does Paula Deen have something to do with that? Fried butter?


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