LITCHFIELD — For a man who grew up drawing pictures and making homemade butter, Gerry Kulzer’s next gig is a perfect fit.
The professional sculptor and art teacher, who lives in Litchfield, will be carving the individual likenesses of 10 Minnesota women from 90-pound blocks of butter this month as part of the Midwest Dairy Association’s annual Princess Kay of the Milky Way promotion that is traditionally conducted during the Minnesota State Fair.
“I’m honored and so thankful the Midwest Dairy Association chose me to carry on this exciting, fun thing for the princesses,” he said. “It’s an honor to represent the dairy farmers of the region that work so hard every day.”
Although the State Fair is canceled this year because of COVID-19, the crowning of the 2020-21 Princess Kay from the slate of 10 finalists will still take place next week — and so will the carving of the butter heads.
Both events will be live-streamed on the Princess Kay Facebook page for all to watch.
But COVID-19 put a halt to Christensen’s plans to travel from her home in California to Minnesota this year.
That’s where Kulzer comes in.
A number of years ago, after he had watched Christensen carve the butter heads at the fair, Kulzer sent a letter to the Midwest Dairy Association saying that if they ever needed a replacement when Christensen retired, he would be interested.
Two years ago Kulzer got the call he had been waiting for from the Midwest Dairy Association and was asked to come for an audition of sorts. He was given a massive block of butter and a female model and started carving.
It was apparently good enough because last year Kulzer spent several days working alongside Christensen at the State Fair. She graciously gave up some of her secrets for carving the dairy princess butter heads.
“She showed me how she does things,” said Kulzer in a telephone interview.
During the apprenticeship last year, Christensen carved one half of a sculpted face and Kulzer did the other half as he tried to match her style.
He said it was satisfying to “work with a master and still achieve something that looked like a cohesive piece of art.”
Learning the craft
This year the plan was for Kulzer to carve three or four butter heads by himself — with Christensen by his side — and then the master would do the rest.
Instead, Kulzer will do them all himself, but Christensen will be by his side virtually from California, watching through a video link and giving advice as Kulzer carves.
Usually, thousands of people watch the process at the State Fair. This year, live updates will be available on the Princess Kay Facebook page, where it could be viewed by millions of people.
But just like the real deal, Kulzer will have eight hours to carve each sculpture.
Completing one sculpture every day for 10 days — in a 40-degree room that turns fingers stiff and cold — will be challenging.
“It gets pretty darn cold after a while, but being in Minnesota we’re kind of used to that,” he said.
Although clay is a more forgiving medium, Kulzer said he's determined to make each butter sculpture a true representation of each woman.
“Every face is a little different and you try to find those differences,” he said. The angle of the cheekbone, the shape of the eyes and nose come together to make the whole person, he said.
“You can get that shape and likeness, but to get the personality into it, that’s the real challenge,” he said. The particular characteristics of butter, the 8-hour timeframe and the cold conditions make that even more difficult.
The Princess Kay of the Milky Way will be crowned Wednesday, Aug. 12.
Kulzer begins carving the next day and will finish the last butter head Aug. 22.
Kulzer said he hopes that he improves with each sculpture he carves this year and that next year he’ll be fully equipped to take over from Christensen and continue the legacy.
“I hope I can get better as I go and I hope I can capture that personality as I work on these butter heads,” he said. “I want to be a great representative for the Midwest Dairy Association and all the dairy farmers out there. I really want to make these princesses look beautiful and capture their personalities.”