Crop Art Is For Everyone!

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See, it says so right there on the sign.

Crop art is exactly what it sounds like: Art made with crops. Generally speaking, that means everything from crop circles to grape-vine wreaths. But we're talking about a very specific kind of crop art. One seldom seen outside the surreal confines of the Minnesota State Fair. This crop art is all about seeds--thousands of them--glued together to form an image. Right now, you're thinking about preschool macaroni pictures, aren't you? Don't. Real crop art is much more challenging.

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Everything you see here is seeds. Artists like Kimberly Cope--the Minneapolitan responsible for this punny little number, which references the grand Fair tradition of serving anything and everything fried and on a stick--painstakingly glue the seeds to a masonite backer board. It's an artistic technique that stems from historical attempts to display crops for show. You wanted something aesthetically pleasing, but you also wanted to show off the quality of the crops themselves.

"It's telling that these pieces are displayed in the horticulture building, alongside the blue-ribbon corn and flax," says Colleen Sheehy, director of the Plains Art Museum and the author of Seed Queen, a book about crop art and the woman who revolutionized the medium.

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These are all the different types of seeds that make up Conan. You see the teeny canola seeds and quinoa? You put those on individually with a toothpick, Sheehan says. Unsurprisingly, that kind of work doesn't have particularly widespread appeal. When Sheehan was researching a book about Lillian Colton--the mother of modern Minnesota crop art--she contacted every state fair in the U.S., looking for similar competitions. Nobody had one.

"You will see some crop art in other states, mixed into a different category, like in arts and crafts," she says. "But Minnesota is really the only place where this isn't just nostalgic and cute. It's still a live art here. It's still evolving."

(Ms. Cope, by the way, deserves some sort of award for most puns shoehorned into a State Fair art entry.)

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Lillian Colton deserves the credit for keeping crop art alive in Minnesota. This Abe Lincoln--again, all seeds, including the background--is one of hers. Colton first entered the crop art competition in 1966, the second year of its existence as a special category. Back then, Sheehy says, people were using the seeds like stitches of thread. You'd have a big, blank background with seeds forming some abstract shapes or mimicking old-fashioned embroidery samplers. Colton (truly, a Happy Mutant before her time) went in an entirely different direction. At the 1967 fair, she unveiled her first portrait, using seeds like drops of paint to create texture, depth and shadow.

"She really blew it open by showing you could do any subject matter," Sheehy says. "And the virtuosity she introduced by using the really tiny seeds, it raised the bar with obsessive quality in the art."

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Colton, as the kids say, brought it. She entered a new portrait every year, and it eventually got to the point where the judges may as well have printed her name on the blue ribbons in advance. Thus, did the backlash begin. It started with subject matter. Colton's portraits, innovative as they were, were very Lawrence Welk, culturally speaking. You got your presidents. You got your un-controversial movie stars. You got your Jesus.

In response, younger Minnesotans started turning up with portraits of Bob Marley and Che.

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Which leads us to this snappy little number from the 2009 Fair. One of the first reasons I got curious about Minnesota crop art was its tradition of political commentary, often featuring a strong lefty bent--a somewhat unexpected tendency for a state fair art competition involving commodity crops. It's quite a bit different from Lillian Colton's polite portraiture, but Sheehy says the credit goes to Colton all the same.

"Even to those who reacted against her, she was really the standard people measured themselves against. Good and bad she sent crop art in a lot of different directions and made it seem alive and viable," Sheehy says. "What you see here today is more interesting, artistically, than anything over in the fine art building."

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For the record, the liberal bias of modern crop artists does attract its own dissent. No, I'm not sure why Nancy Reagan has a parrot. Or why Barbara Bush was left out.

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And the competition isn't all about politics.

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The competitors also aren't all Minnesotan. There is a category for would-be seed kings and queens who live out of state. The most out-of-state of all the out-of-staters, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is Zambian artist Obrien Shipeka. Shipeka has long worked with seed art and entered this portrait of his little sister after a U.S. Embassy public affairs officer told him about the Minnesota State Fair. Unique to Shipeka's work is the technique of roasting seeds--in this case, millet--to alter their color. The innovation helped earn him the 2009 overall Best in Show, the out-of-state blue ribbon and a $40 prize. To put the prize in perspective, Shipeka just made about as much as a Zambian security guard could expect to earn in a year, according to the 2002 Economic and Social Development Research Project of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection.