From Field to Frame

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.

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