Metro-East Living

Butter sculptor toils in a cool ‘fish bowl’


How do you get to be the Illinois State Fair butter sculptor?

Answer your phone.

That’s how Sharon BuMann, a career sculptor, got the job.

“They called and said, ‘Would you do our butter sculpture?’ The current one was retiring. I’ve been to New York, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas state fairs (to create butter sculptures).”

The Illinois State Fair’s Butter Cow has been an icon for more than 90 years. Sharon, 62, who comes from Central Square, N.Y., 20 miles north of Syracuse, is proud to be part of butter cow history. She travels to Springfield to work in the Dairy Building’s 37-degree refrigerated glass case. Lines of fairgoers snake around the case as she carves and sculpts.

“It’s like being in a fish bowl,” she said, wiping butter from her jacket. “You get used to it. Most of the time, I get so involved in what I am doing, I don’t notice it.”

She wore rubber boots, a waterproof jacket and a ski hat.

“I use dish soap to clean things. That breaks up butter. I try to keep butter off my shoes. They get slippery on the bottom. These are good for two years, then you have to get rid of them.”

Sharon, a professional sculptor for 37 years, prefers working in bronze when she’s not working in butter. Her creations range in size from miniature to monumental. Last year, the mother and grandmother used her five grandsons as models to create the butter sculpture for the 2014 Kansas State Fair. “They are all so different and great fun,” she said in her blog. “Granny is on the pogo stick. They are cheering me on.”

Her son George also is a sculptor.

“He’s done this with me a couple times,” she said. “This is my last year at the Illlinois State Fair, my 13th year, but my last year.”

We asked Sharon a few questions, just before she stepped into the case Friday afternoon.

How much time does she spend on her sculpture? “It depends. Anywhere between six and 13 hours a day. Some days, I start at 7 and fnish at midnight. Hopefully, he’ll be done by tomorrow (Saturday) night.” She spent two weeks on the Illinois Fair butter sculpture, then headed to Kansas to do theirs.

Biggest challenge with butter? The time frame. “You only have a short amount of time to do your creation.”

Other challenges? “The cold is a challenge. It’s 37 degrees inside.”

Does this sculpture have a name? “I think we are going to call it, ‘Like This, Grandpa?’ Grandpa is showing his cow. The little girl is showing her calf. (But she’s really having some fun). She’s teaching her caulf to stand and do tricks with the chickens. Her calf will have chicks on its head and chicks on its back. The mother hen is frantically running around looking for her babies.”

How much butter will you use? “About a thousand pounds. I love butter, but I usually don’t it eat it till January.You can smell it. That smell is overwhelming sometimes.”

Tools of the trade? “Sculpting tools, such as a wooden loop and spackling knives. I also use pipe wrenches, sabre saws, hammers, pliers.”

Favorite buttery dish? “I like sauted onions in butter.”

Favorite fair food? “I have to have one corn dog a year, and I pick a different fair to have my corn dog. I also like the barbecue parfaits. It’s layered potatoes, beans and barbecued beef.”

Question you’re asked most: “‘Is it cold in there?’ I stay in a couple hours at a time.”

Best part of being at the fair? “All the people that I meet.”

How did you become a butter sculptor? “I had a lot of farm friends. I always wanted to be an artist. When I went to the state fairs in New York, I went to see the butter sculptures and the horse shows. When the New York State Fair advertised 19 years ago, I went to the refrigerator, took some butter out and worked with it long enough to see how long I could keep it out of the refrigierator, so I learned what temperature it had to be to make sculptures. (She did her first audition sculpture in the cooler of an IGA store.) My parents always told me not to play in my food. This is the last laugh.”

Want to see more of Sharon’s art? Check out