Skip to main content

Davis Journal

Artists ‘spread’ joy with Butter Cow exhibit

Sep 13, 2021 01:11PM ● By Becky Ginos

The final product – cows spend a day at the beach. Courtesy photos

SALT LAKE CITY—Sculptors Debbie Brown and Matt McNaughtan spent more than 50 hours in a refrigerator last week creating art – out of butter. The pair have been working on the famous Dairy West 700 lb. Butter Cow exhibit at the Utah State Fair that opened Sept. 9 and runs through Sept. 19. 

“I’ve been doing it for 23 years,” said Brown. “It’s been a fun project. Utah Dairy Farms started it in 1998 to promote dairy products. They were brainstorming and someone remembered there was a lady in Iowa who had done a butter cow. They flew her out and she trained us.”

“I met Debbie’s daughter about 15 years ago,” said McNaughtan. “She said ‘my mom sculpts butter cows’ and I thought ‘that sounds like a blast.’ Then a year later she called and said ‘my mom’s in a bind. Can you do the butter cow next week?’ I stepped in and I’ve done it ever since then.”

At the beginning, Brown said they would build an armature of a prize cow bolted to wood as the base. “It used to be a realistic cow but when I changed and got a new partner they became less realistic and more of a caricature. Now we get the armature welded into a metal shape and cover it in chicken wire to hold the butter in the shape we want it to be.”

They work in a tight refrigerated space to make their creation. “You have to be kind of a contortionist to work in there,” said McNaughtan. “It’s like playing Twister to move around. At first it goes pretty quick. It’s about 48 degrees and we’re slapping butter on there (mold). It firms up like in a fridge and we carve it then take a break and go back in.”

It’s super soft as it’s going on like wet clay, he said. “It’s slimy as you form it. There’s a sweet zone where it’s not quite soft but not hard. I use a variety of sculpting tools. I literally have butter fingers trying to hold a tool. They’re slippery.”

McNaughtan grew up on a farm in Heber and draws his inspiration from that. “I’ve sculpted dogs, cats, I have a surplus of ideas floating in my head,” he said. “I’m always trying to let the art out of me to make it come alive.”

Some of his favorite creations include a magician cow with a farmer floating through a hoop and an alien starship. “It was beaming up a cow with a farmer hanging onto its leg like it was a cow abduction. It was just hilarious,” said McNaughtan. “There’s been a royal wedding and hunger games out of cows. We also make super heroes.”

Brown said this year after COVID, they wanted to do something fun. “It’s a trip to the beach with a cow lounging on the beach, a farmer getting hit by a wave and a calf pouring water to make a sandcastle. There’s a little crab biting the cow’s tale. It’s a fun, joyful scene to make you feel happy.”

When the fair ends, the fridge is turned off and the butter melts to be used again next year. “It reminds me of 70s temporary art,” said Brown. “It lives in pictures.”