Photos and paintings can be lovely, but if you really want to impress, get your likeness chiseled into a 90-pound block of butter.
The butter busts began as a way to bring attention to Minnesota’s dairy industry and have remained a draw since, as thousands of visitors show up every August to watch the painstaking artistry while a winner is named Princess Kay of the Milky Way.
“It would be hard to find a person in Minnesota who doesn’t know about Princess Kay of the Milky Way,” said sculptor Linda Christensen, 79, about the contest naming a state dairy ambassador.
For almost 50 years, Christensen has been the principal artist to create the busts. She uses a kitchen knife she calls “Old Faithful” to carve the faces into salted butter. Each one takes about six hours.
Now, after churning out more than 500 princess butter heads over nearly five decades, Christensen has decided to retire her knife. She turned her last 90-pound block into a creamy masterpiece at the fairgrounds last month from her glass-enclosed studio.
“You learn to get used to working in a rotating glass booth with everyone watching you,” she said. “You have to bundle up, because the temperature is set at 39 degrees. There probably aren’t a lot of artists who’d like to work with cold butter, but I really enjoyed it.”
Christensen, who grew up in Minneapolis, said it has been an honor to work as an industry butter artist. She moved to Oceanside, Calif., 18 years ago, but returned to her home state every August to keep up the tradition.
State fairs in Iowa and Illinois are famous for showcasing cows crafted from butter, but Christensen said she doesn’t know other artists who regularly sculpt the likenesses of live dairy models year after year.
She said she admires the women she sculpts, most of whom come from dairy farming families.
“As kids, they knew what it was like to get up at 4:30 to help with the farm chores before catching the bus to school,” she said. “They’re tough.”
“That’s what I’ll miss the most: Getting to know the ‘princesses’ who would show up in my chilly booth, all bundled up, wearing their tiaras. We’d spend about six hours together while I made their butter heads.”
The Princess Kay of the Milky Way contest is not based on looks. It is a goodwill ambassador program focused on leadership skills and “promoting the goodness of dairy products,” according to the Minnesota Dairy Princess Handbook.
The handbook states: “While a dairy princess doesn’t have to be a ‘dairy expert,’ she should have sufficient knowledge of dairy production and the importance of milk and other dairy foods in a healthy diet.”
The princess is selected based on how well judges think she will promote Minnesota’s dairy industry at trade shows and community events. Women who live or work on dairy farms are encouraged to compete in county contests every year, with the finalists advancing to the Minnesota State Fair.
The top dozen ended up in Christensen’s see-through butter booth as she chiseled their likenesses into edible works of art.
Christensen began the niche portraits in 1972 when the American Dairy Association of Minnesota (now known as Midwest Dairy) was looking for a new artist to make giant princess butter heads at the state fairgrounds in Falcon Heights, outside of St. Paul.
Christensen had recently graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and was recommended by one of her instructors to make sculptures of the pageant’s finalists.
Christensen worked as an art teacher at the time, but she thought two weeks of butter sculpting would be a fun way to make extra money, she said. She didn’t imagine she’d remain for nearly 50 years.
She’s turning over her knife to Gerry Kulzer, an art teacher from Litchfield, Minn., who was chosen as her successor.
Kulzer, 52, is hoping for a smooth transition, but he knows it won’t be easy following Christensen’s lead in gargantuan blocks of frozen churned cream.
“It’s an honor to have been chosen,” said Kulzer, who has worked with Christensen as an apprentice in past years.
“Now after doing it, I realize how difficult it is to produce a likeness in a cold, spinning butter booth,” Kulzer added. “I honestly don’t know how Linda has been able to do it for 50 years.”
The Princess Kay of the Milky Way pageant — named in the 1950s by the winner of a public contest — wouldn’t have been the same without Christensen’s sculpting talent, said Molly Pelzer, the CEO of Midwest Dairy.
“Linda’s butter sculptures have helped solidify [the pageant’s] iconic place in Minnesota culture,” she said.
Past winners have included Kristi Pettis Osterlund, who in 1996 was crowned as the 43rd Princess Kay of the Milky Way. She took her butter bust home to Winthrop, Minn., where it was kept frozen in a meat locker until the last month of her reign. She then decided to melt down her likeness and serve it to her community to slather on corn on the cob.
“I thought that a sweet corn feed would be the perfect way to thank everyone for their support,” said Osterlund, now 46 and living in Billings, Mont., where she works for the Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming.
She and her mother fired up the largest slow-cooker they could find, cut the butter head into big chunks and melted it one batch at a time, she said.
“I remember cringing when my mom took a butcher knife to the head,” she said. “That was a little emotional for me. But it was such a fun and memorable party. I’ll bet we easily had six or seven quarts of melted butter.”
Donna Schmidt Moenning, a Princess Kay finalist in 1980, opted for a different approach.
Moenning shared the back half of her butter bust with friends and neighbors in Marietta, Minn., for baking projects. But then she froze the face portion. It’s still sitting in her deep freeze, next to the pork chops, she said.
“It’s held up amazingly well,” said Moenning, now 60. She works in food and agricultural communications and runs the family farm in southeastern Minnesota with her husband, Mark Moenning.
“Tossing [my butter head] out was never an option — it’s just too unique,” she said. “I still pull it out now and then to show the kids and friends. It’s a little piece of Minnesota State Fair history.”
For Christensen, who was once asked to create a butter bust of David Letterman for a CBS affiliate, and the likeness of Big Bird for a Minneapolis showing of “Sesame Street Live!,” that is the ultimate compliment.
She also said she admires the practicality and community spirit of melting and using the 90-pound sculptures.
“Some princesses have even used their butter heads to hold pancake breakfasts for their entire town,” she said.