From Field to Frame

Crop artists use lentils and poppy seeds to express themselves


| September/October 2002


When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.

When American statesman Daniel Webster uttered these words in 1840, it's unlikely that he had in mind a genre of art created from the fruits of farmers' toil. But if Webster could join the hordes of visitors at the Minnesota State Fair's annual display of crop art, he would surely be impressed by what can be accomplished with seeds and glue. The American bald eagle in hollyhock, alfalfa, red clover, bromegrass, watermelon, salsify, and cantaloupe seeds. A portrait of Barbra Streisand rendered in ground white corn, grits, timothy, poppy seeds, safflower, and peas.

Displayed next to prize-winning ears of corn, onions, potatoes, and other produce, crop art seems like a traditional hobby left over from a bygone era of homegrown self-sufficiency. In fact, seed mosaics were introduced to the fair only in 1965, and Minnesota's remains the sole state fair with a competitive category for the art form. The modern incarnation of crop art reportedly originated when two homemakers from rural Minnesota, inspired by a mosaic mural they had seen on a downtown Minneapolis office building, began reproducing their crewel patterns using agricultural materials. The first year of competition attracted just a handful of participants, but the second year saw a tenfold increase in the number of entries, one of which was a depiction of grouse by hairstylist Lillian Colton of Owatonna, Minnesota, who had happened upon the crop art display on her visit to the fair the year before.

Colton dominated the crop art show for the next 18 years, then retired from competition in 1984 to give other competitors a chance. Now 90 years old, she still spends the 12 days of the fair demonstrating the craft in front of a wall covered with examples of her work. A touch of glue on the end of a toothpick allows her to pick up seeds one by one and place them on a piece of canvas board prepared with a pencil outline and smeared with glue. A layer of polyurethane seals the seeds in place and, with luck, keeps the bugs away.

Colton uses 300 different types of seeds (all from plants that grow in Minnesota, in keeping with state fair rules; weed seeds are strictly forbidden). Acquaintances from the beauty shop supply her with seeds, as do family members still working the farm where she was raised.

Most of Colton's pictures are portraits of national icons and celebrities. Kenny Rogers and Oprah Winfrey take their place alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Grandma Moses, and Billy Graham in a veritable pantheon of Middle America heroes.

But just as businesses near Main Street in her hometown of Owatonna are outfitted these days with Spanish-language signs for groceries and services, the crop art display at the fair has developed an edge that reflects the changing makeup of the Midwest. In 1989, Minneapolis librarian Cathy Camper entered a portrait of Haile Selassie made of corn, sunflower, millet, wild rice, wheat berries, oats, watermelon, squash, and clover seeds. The next year Camper contributed Malcolm X to the lineup, and later Frida Kahlo.

Camper is by no means the only urban hipster to be enchanted by crop art's charm. The Twin Cities have dominated recent state fair competition. The kitsch of it all- exemplified by a three-dimensional seed rendering of a deep-fried cornmeal-battered hot dog on a stick (another state fair staple)-makes an irresistible statement about the urban scene in a metropolis surrounded by heartland.

Not content to wait another year for the next state fair, a Minneapolis gallery brought together the work of 20 crop artists for a midwinter showing, in a studio complex appropriately housed in a former warehouse of the Northrup King seed company. The works of perennial crop art champion Lillian Colton were given a place of honor. The only ribbons on display in this exhibition, however, were a couple of black ribbons saying 'Banned at the Minnesota State Fair 2001.' One of them adorned a work by Cathy Camper, in which the artist used red lentils to depict the nipples of a female nude. And fig leaves just don't grow in Minnesota.

Reprinted from the literary food and culture journal Gastronomica (Spring 2002). The quarterly celebration of eating, drinking, and living well combines everything from poetry and memoir to rants on restaurant culture and journalistic explorations into the politics of what animals different cultures eat. Subscriptions: $40/yr. (4 issues) from University of California Press Journals Division, 2000 Center St., #303, Berkeley, CA 94704.