How a Butter Sculptor Bridges Communities
When Linda Christensen attended art school decades ago, she never anticipated becoming a staple of the Minnesota State Fair.
She graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1972 as a sculpture major. “I was doing these great big huge sculptures of female figures in groups, and nobody wanted to buy them, not even for a dentist office,” she said as she geared up for her 47th Minnesota State Fair appearance.
Now, her work can be found in all kinds of settings. And many of her sculptures are stored in freezers. She doesn’t even mind if people eat her art.
Christensen is the butter sculptor of the Minnesota State Fair, and each summer she is charged with working for 12 days in a refrigerated, revolving booth, carving away at blocks of butter to make likenesses of that year’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way and the finalists who represent this iconic, regional tradition. Now, at age 76, she is a staple of the fair and even enjoys a degree of fame. It all started in the 1970s, when she was looking for a creative gig.
“The president of what was then the American Dairy Association of Minnesota hired me to come and do butter sculptures,” she said. “It’s got to be so much more than a little summer money. It’s become part of my identity. I’m the Minnesota butter sculptor.”
Christensen took a moment to answer questions, so we could get to know her a little better. Read on:
What is your earliest memory of butter?
My mother used to always try to sneak margarine in on me, and I could always taste the difference (laughs).
I grew up in the city in Minnesota, but both of my families are from a farming background. The farm I spent summers on had cows — four or five as I remember, and I think they actually sold a little cream.
My mother’s cousin baked bread and made butter every week. They had one of those electric separators on the back porch, and she’d put the milk through the separator twice, and my job was to churn batches of the cream in the kitchen mixer and mash the butter on the sides of the bowl into one lump.
What gets you most excited about butter?
Butter is a wonderful art medium. It’s one of the best things you can work with just in terms of how it holds up. Clay can start to dry out, or it can get too sloppy and mushy, and if you get synthetic clay that has it’s disadvantages.
With butter, you can just slice through it. And if you don’t mind cold fingers, it smooths down beautifully just from the warmth of your hands. Butter has a beautiful, almost translucent surface, and butter in that amount is a show-stopper and people are amazed by it.
What’s something people don’t know about your job as a butter sculptor?
They can last years and years. After I finish them and the princesses box them up and take them home, they go on to live lives of their own. More than one has gone to New York. One was used at a museum of the Minnesota Historical Society. One was featured in National Geographic and then was even pictured in a Jeopardy question. Alex Trebek has come and visited me in my butter booth since then. They also go home to VFW Halls and small-town grocery stores.
What is your idea of happiness?
Feeling that I am contributing in some way to the betterment of my neighborhood and my community. I think there is some of that in the butter sculptures. It represents a meeting of the rural and the urban communities at the fair, and I think there’s a kind of a separation of those two areas, and it’s a way to raise awareness of the rural community. I think it’s good for everybody to have something fun. It’s a celebratory thing at the end of the summer.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
It’s a very personal thing for me in a way. I didn’t see myself as very self-empowered when I was young, and that’s just the era I grew up in. I’ve become very independent and self-empowered, and never missing a day of the fair in 47 years—I managed to stay healthy and work hard at something that I love.
What would your friends say they admire about you?
I have a sense of humor and I like to have fun. I’m really open to new experiences. Last month I went up to Big Bear Lake in California, and the elevation was 7,000 feet. I hiked three miles up a fairly steep and challenging trail. I surprised myself that I could do that at age 76.
Which living person do you admire?
Teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty, or there are people who decide to do something to help at-risk kids and come up with really creative ways to help kids getting left behind by the system. Those are the people I admire the most.