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A Canceled State Fair Can't Stop Minnesota's Famed Butter Sculpture Artistry

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, we're going to end on - well, we'll call it a bittersweet note. Every August for the past 48 years, you could walk inside the dairy building at the Minnesota State Fair and find Linda Christensen carving 90-pound blocks of pure butter into sculptures. Christensen is an artist who grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and the sculptures honor the 10 finalists of an annual pageant of sorts, a Minnesota tradition called the Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition. It features young women from dairy farms around the state. Over the years, Christiansen says she got used to people stopping by to admire her work or say hello.

LINDA CHRISTENSEN: And then there's the people that are seeing it for the first time. They're the ones whose mouths are hanging open (laughter) outside my window.

MARTIN: This year, the Minnesota State Fair was canceled because of the pandemic, but the Princess Kay competition persisted. The finalists and their families wore masks, socially distanced, and the sculpting was streamed on Facebook Live. Christensen, however, couldn't make it. She lives in California now and was unable to travel, so Gerry Kulzer stepped in.

GERRY KULZER: I mean, I'm 51, so she started when I was, like, a year, 2 years old.

MARTIN: Gerry spent the past two years training under Christensen, and they were supposed to split the load this year. Instead, Kulzer took on all 10 Princess Kay butter sculptures himself.

MACKENZIE CRAIG: Gerry, how much time do you think is left on my butter sculpture?

KULZER: Probably about 10 more hours.

CRAIG: (Laughter) Gerry said, jokingly, 10 more hours.

MARTIN: That's Mackenzie Craig, one of the Princess Kay finalists this year. For 10 straight days, Kulzer did this, each day turning one block of butter into the likeness of one of the finalists.

KULZER: You know, it is physically exhausting. My forearms ached. My fingers were very sore and stiff. And then compound that by being in a refrigerator, you know, at 40 degrees. (Laughter) There is no doubt your body feels it.

MARTIN: Linda Christensen knows that toll, and she even misses it. She's planning to be back next August at the Minnesota State Fair for her 50th and final year in the dairy building.

CHRISTENSEN: It was emotional to not be there. I was expecting to cry next year. Part of the reason is I didn't realize until it's coming to an end now how much that butter sculpture has meant to me and how much it is a way for me to define my work.

MARTIN: So come next summer, in an 8x8 cooler with a revolving floor and hopefully an in-person audience, Linda Christensen will turn 90 pounds of churned cream into a princess one last time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.