Friday, August 06, 1999

Butter sculptor ends 36-year run at Ohio fair

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dan Ross poses with the last cow he will sculpt at the Ohio State Fair.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        Butter him up, and it's still hard to get Dan Ross to sound excited about his work.

        “This is it,” says the 64 year-old soft-spoken artist, standing in front of his amazing display of butter sculptures in the Dairy Products Building at the Ohio State Fair. Using the stuff we smear on toast and hot corn, Mr. Ross creates honest-to-goodness art.

        Wait a second. Mr. Ross stops talking abruptly when he spots a flaw on Neil Armstrong's space suit from the other side of the glass display. With an unexpected burst of adrenaline, he dashes into the refrigerated case to rub a barely visible indentation out of the 2-foot-tall sculpture of the moon-walking astronaut.

        There. Now it looks perfect — down to the tiny stars etched into the little butter American flag in the astronaut's gloved hand. A look of satisfaction eases over his face.

  • What: Butter sculpture display at Ohio State Fair.
  • When: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
  • Where: Dairy Products Building. Free admission to display.
  • Information: (888) 646-3976, (614) 644-3247.
  Complete guide to the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana state fairs at
        Everything has to be absolutely perfect because this is Mr. Ross' farewell fair exhibit. After 36 years, perhaps the most talented and experienced butter sculptor on the planet — the man who has massaged and molded close to 25 tons of real butter — is calling it quits.

        “I've done it for three dozen years, and it's the end of the millennium,” he says with a slight smile. “I figured the time was right.”

        The dairy industry unveiled his exhibit at the fair Thursday night, and for the first time, Mr. Ross was there to hear the applause.

        He's going out in style. For this year's exhibit, Mr. Ross created a collection of his greatest butter hits. In addition to the mini-Neil Armstrong, he molded a diminutive ballerina and Olympic gymnast, scowling Star Wars villain Darth Vader and swinging golfer Jack Nicklaus.

  • The butter sculpture tradition began at the Ohio State Fair in the early 1900s, when Ohio State University and dairy processors sponsored sculpting contests. The appearance of the butter cow and calf became an annual fair tradition in the 1920s, after the Dairy Products Building opened.
  • In the 1960s, the display's sponsors — the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council Mid-East — added another featured sculpture, usually a human celebrity with an Ohio connection.
  • Featured sculptures over the years have included: astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, professional golfer Jack Nicklaus, Star Wars' villain Darth Vader, Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, A Tribute to the Columbus Zoo and A Tribute to Milk Delivery.
  • About 1,000 pounds of butter are used for the displays.
  • About 500,000 people visit the sculptures every year.
  • Butter sculptures have gained national attention. In 1987, the sculpture of Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, of suburban Columbus, appeared on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman. In 1997, Sports Illustrated featured a photo of the butter sculpture tribute to Ohio State football coach John Cooper.
        Fittingly (and surprisingly, considering his humility) the exhibit also features a self-portrait of the artist. Mr. Ross sculpted a nearly life-sized figure of himself wearing his favorite sweat shirt, sitting on a stool, applying the final touches to a sculpture of a calf.

        “Yes, it was a little odd,” he says while in the chilly, buttery-sweet-smelling display case. “This is my first self-portrait.”

        His wife, Susan Gardner, says he resisted the self-portrait idea at first. “But they asked him to do it,” she says. “And I think he saw the sense of it.”

        The largest, most familiar piece in the sculpture display is the butter cow. Since the 1920s when the tradition began at the Ohio State Fair, the cow has been a constant.

        “I think this is a Guernsey,” Mr. Ross says with hesitation, standing behind the butter cow, which is about eight-tenths of normal size and weighs more than 500 pounds. “Pretty much a generic cow.”

        From the attentive ears to the bulging belly to the straining udder, the butter cow looks as if she just waddled into the milking barn. Only thing missing is the moo. Except, of course, this bovine is colored butter-yellow, head to tail.

        “I do cows pretty fast,” Mr. Ross says.

        Of course, 36 years of practice helps.

        For a famous butter sculptor, Mr. Ross looks awfully thin. No, he doesn't lick his fingers while modeling sculptures. Never even craves a stack of pancakes while working. In fact, he admits he doesn't eat butter at all.

        “Well, we're kind of into health,” he says sheepishly, realizing the dairy industry signs his checks.

        “But we have lots of other dairy products at home!” his wife interjects.

        Mr. Ross was born and reared in Columbus, a city boy, and met few cows growing up.

        He majored in art at Ohio State and later earned an MBA from the University of Michigan. In 1963, his former art professor gave up the butter sculpting job at the fair after a few years. He recommended his student, and Mr. Ross accepted.

        “The first year, I nearly didn't make it,” he says. “I was working on that cow up until the night before the fair opened.”

        He wasn't impressed with his first effort. In fact, he can't remember the human butter sculpture he paired with the cow. Or maybe he doesn't want to.

        “It took me a couple of years to get the hang of it,” he says.

        Mr. Ross worked in Columbus at nonprofit organizations, creating art and sculptures on the side. He continued to do the butter sculptures because he enjoyed it.

        “Every year, I would just get that feeling again,” he says.

        He started a home design business in 1984. He retired in 1990 to work as an artist full time and moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he met and married his wife, a photographer and artist.

        They work out of a home studio near the mountains, where Mr. Ross creates primarily metal and wood sculptures. But every July, he heads back to Columbus with butter on his mind.

        “I like to work with different media,” he says.

        Butter is one of them.

        It usually takes Mr. Ross two to four weeks to complete a butter display, working up to eight hours a day, seven days a week.

        To support the weight of the large sculptures, he globs butter on welded steel frames. In the 50-degree refrigerated display case, the butter becomes malleable.

        “It's a lot like working with clay,” he says.

        After filling out the sculpture's mass, he creates features and details using smaller pieces of butter. His only tools are his hands and a pencil-thick wooden stick.

        His wife says he is able to work fast because he is organized and so intense in his approach. But everything doesn't always go to plan.

        Every July, Mr. Ross lives in fear of power outages, a butter sculptor's worst nightmare. In 1977, a thunderstorm knocked out electricity to the refrigerator case the day before the fair opened, causing his first Darth Vader to melt as if under laser assault. He had to work frantically that night to make the sculpture look presentable.

        Another year, a power outage caused the lower half of his butter cow to drop off. This year, flickering electricity caused his heart to flutter again.

        But he finished in near record time — starting July 14 and finishing the night of July 31.

        Everyone knows it will be difficult to replace Mr. Ross. It's not as if there's a bunch of butter-sculpting apprentices out there scrambling to apply for the position. But he has promised to help the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council Mid-East — the sponsors of the display — find someone.

        “There's this woman at the Iowa State Fair who has been doing butter sculptures for about 20 years,” his wife says. “But we hear she only does busts and small sculptures.”

        Nothing compared to the Master.

        Naturally, it's not easy to get Mr. Ross to brag about his past sculptures. But twist his arm, and he'll say he especially liked the butter scene he created in 1994 featuring laughing children nibbling cones in an ice cream parlor. Another personal favorite was last year's rendition of Sen. John Glenn wearing a space suit chatting with kids. You could recognize the distinctive Glenn forehead from across the room.

        “Incredible, isn't it?” his wife whispers, looking at the photo.

        Not all snooty artists understand his butter art.

        “Some of them think it's kind of funny,” he says. “But it's just like any other sculpture. Only this is butter.”

        After 36 years, the occasional giggles and rolling eyes don't bother him.

        Unfortunately, Mr. Ross doesn't get to keep any of his sculptures. No one does. By the end of the two-week exhibit, the butter turns rancid, creating a feast for a few flies that break into the display. So when the fair ends, workers scrape the butter off the metal frames and discard it.

        “I get kind of sad about that sometimes,” he says. “At least we have pictures.”

        But he appreciates the fact people will remember and talk about his unusual art for years.

        “I figure at least six generations have seen my sculptures,” he says, finally sounding a little proud.

        The Dairy Council estimates that since 1963, 18 million people have peered through the glass at Mr. Ross' butter sculptures. (Most of them probably said Wow! at least once.) That's a lot of folks to view any art exhibit.

        “Yeah, I know,” he says.


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