Butter sculptor Norma ‘Duffy’ Lyon’s bovine creations drew millions to Iowa State Fair


FILE - In this Aug. 11, 1999 photo, Norma "Duffy" Lyon works on her version of "The Last Supper." (RODNEY WHITE/AP)

Norma “Duffy” Lyon, a renowned butter sculptor whose cow statues and creamy depictions of John Wayne, Tiger Woods and Elvis attracted millions of visitors to the Iowa State Fair for more than 40 years, died June 26 at a hospital in Marshalltown, Iowa, after a stroke. She was 81.

Mrs. Lyon, an Iowa cattle farmer’s wife, was pregnant with her seventh child when she became the official Iowa State Fair butter cow sculptor in 1960.

Every year since, tens of thousands of fairgoers have lined up to glimpse Mrs. Lyon’s signature butter cow and other dairy creations.

“In London, people go see the Queen’s jewels,” Drake University sociology professor Dean Wright told the New York Times in 1996. “In Iowa, the butter cow is the star.”

Mrs. Lyon’s other works included a butter statue of country entertainer Garth Brooks, a butter rendition of Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic,” and a butter Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

She sculpted a cheddar cheese cow for David Letterman’s “Late Show” and created butter busts of Matt Lauer and Katie Couric for the “Today” show hosts.

Mrs. Lyon said she was most proud of a life-size reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The sculpture of Jesus and his 12 disciples was made with 2,000 pounds of butter.

A fair tradition since 1911, the annual butter cow statue symbolizes the Midwestern state’s deep agricultural roots. In 2008, 1.1 million farming enthusiasts attended the fair in Des Moines.

Mrs. Lyon sculpted the butter cow in a large, refrigerated room whose temperature never exceeds 40 degrees. On average, the cow calls for 600 pounds of butter, which is enough to spread across 19,200 slices of toast.

Besides the Iowa State Fair, Mrs. Lyon was commissioned to create butter sculptures at fairs in Illinois and Kansas.

One year, after Mrs. Lyon suffered a stroke and couldn’t complete a sculpture for the Illinois State Fair, organizers asked another artist to make a butter cow. But the creature wasn’t sculpted to Mrs. Lyon’s exacting standards of conformation.

“Everyone laughed and said that’s nothing but a mule with teats,” Illinois fair leader Dick Moore told the Chicago Tribune in 2001. “They sneered at it.”

Mrs. Lyon retired from cow sculpting in 2006, passing the knife on to her protege, Sarah Pratt.

“People treat me like a queen sometimes,” Mrs. Lyon said in 1996. “Little kids get pretty awe-struck. But I’m just an Iowa farm wife.”

Norma Duffield Stong was born July 29, 1929, in Nashville. Her uncle, Phil Stong, wrote the 1932 novel “State Fair,” about the Iowa State Fair. The book was made into a movie the next year starring Will Rogers, and a later musical adaptation by Rodgers and Hammerstein was twice rendered onscreen, featuring such songs as “It Might as Well Be Spring.”

Mrs. Lyon was a 1951 animal husbandry graduate of what is now Iowa State University. During one winter there, she and her sorority sisters won a campus-wide snow sculpture contest. Encouraged by her friends, she took sculpting classes under the tutelage of Danish-born artist Christian Petersen.

Survivors include her husband of 60 years, Joe Lyon of Toledo, Iowa; nine children; 24 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

During the last presidential election season, Mrs. Lyon made a 23-pound butter bust of then-candidate Barack Obama.

At a campaign stop in Iowa, Mrs. Lyon presented the sculpture to Obama, who said to her that his ears appeared too big.

Mrs. Lyon insisted that as much as she liked him, her artwork had to be true to form.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.