Linda Christensen marks 40 fairs in the chilly booth at the Minnesota State Fair.
Linda Christensen arrives at the fairgrounds just after dawn, with long underwear and rubber gloves.
"I like to get a good parking spot," she says, "and get to the barns when the big draft horses with those great big hooves are being walked up and down the streets early in the morning. They're so impressive."
She doesn't gape in awe for long. There's butter to sculpt.
For the 40th straight year, Christensen is spending her days in the 39-degree "butter booth," rotating with the royalty and fashioning 90-pound blocks into likenesses of Princess Kay of the Milky Way and her 11 dairy disciples.
All told, she's carved up more than 450 blocks -- 32,000 pounds of butter -- since Nixon carved up McGovern in 1972.
"I came in at the end of the bouffant era," says Christensen, 69, also cringing at memories of the big-hair era of the 1980s.
"Those big, high bangs and wings and wings of feathered haircuts and very tight curls have always been the hardest. It's very, very hard work."
It's equally hard to be considered a serious artist when butter is your medium.
"I take it seriously because it's a big important thing for the whole dairy industry," she says. "But I don't know that anyone else has to take it seriously."
Nevertheless, National Geographic has twice featured her work, and she's turned down requests from Oprah Winfrey and Johnny Carson.
"They wanted me to do something within an hour," she says, shrugging at the notion of rushing her unique art.
Christensen has lived in Oceanside, Calif., north of San Diego, for the last eight years.
Don't let her California address fool you. She's all Minnesotan. Maiden name? Olson.
"I didn't realize how much my identity is wrapped up in these butter sculptures until I moved away and everyone said: 'You do what?'''
The daughter of a secretary mom and aluminum siding salesman dad, Christensen was born in northeast Minneapolis, spent some time as a girl in Willmar when her dad sold Wonder Bread, and graduated from Richfield High School. In 1950, at age 8, she remembers trekking up from Willmar for her first Minnesota State Fair.
"They had a tent set up in front of the grandstand with the first television I'd ever seen," she says, chuckling.
She hasn't missed a fair since.
From her earliest days, Christensen was artistic.
"No color crayons for me," she says. "As a little girl, I'd get a piece of paper and rub bark and leaves and marvel at the different colors I could create."
She gave birth to two daughters before enrolling at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design -- one of the first married women with kids to enroll there. In 1968, as a fledgling art student, she walked into the Dairy Building on a scorching day and marveled at the guy in the cooler sculpting butter heads as dairy princesses modeled in snowsuits.
"I wanted to get in there -- and not just because it was 200 degrees cooler," she says.
Her chance came four years later, when a woman at her art school recommended her to fill a void in the butter booth. She has worked every day of the fair since, sculpting one butter head each day since 1972.
Along the way, she has worked as a middle-school art teacher, designed her own line of greeting cards, taught calligraphy and now crafts necklaces and bracelets out of hand-tooled leather. But butter sculpting is, well, her bread and butter, and she plans to continue "until I can't."
Inside the butter booth
When the year's new batch of princesses step into the cooler, Christensen sets them at ease.
"They think they have to sit perfectly still and hold a smile, which is absolutely what I don't want them to do," she says.
She encourages them to take breaks, chat with family and friends. Discussions ramble from boys to her kids and five grandchildren and everything in between.
"There's never a dull moment in there with Linda," says Ann Miron Tauzell, the 2007 Princess Kay. "She's really good at reading people and getting to know them."
Until this year, Christensen had never visited a working dairy farm. Tauzell's father, Hugo Mayor Fran Miron, hosted a party for her last week in honor of her 40 years. Christensen then headed to New Ulm to tour the butter-producing operation that hand packs the butter blocks she's used all these years.
"Butter is so nice and translucent," she says. "It makes a beautiful surface to shape."
Chistensen's 40th year has prompted a flood of dairy royalty to return, often with families in tow. Ronda Weeding Sellin, 52, woke up at 4 a.m. to make the pilgrimage from Ortonville, carrying a black-and-white snapshot from 1977 of her with long blond hair sitting in the booth.
"We didn't have those nice snowsuits they have nowadays," she says. "That was a highlight of my life."
The former Mounts sisters from Dalton, princess runners-up in the late-'90s, led a three-generation entourage, giving Christensen gifts and hugs.
Their father, retired farmer Tim Mounts, got tears in his eyes when his girls posed.
"Their weddings were great," he said. "But in terms of a father's pride, there's nothing that compares with having his two daughters in that booth."
He and his wife still have the butter heads in the freezer.
Their 8-year-old granddaughter, Cailey Schlosser, remembers when her mom's butter head made a cameo appearance in her West Otter Tail County kindergarten glass. "There was a boy who really liked to eat butter," she said. "I was scared he would lick my mom's butter head."
"Growing up on a dairy farm is not exactly glamorous," said Christa Mounts Schlosser, now a dairy inspector for the state. "It's smelly and dirty. But for one day when you're spinning in that booth with Linda, you're on a pedestal.''
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767