Crop Art Is For Everyone!

Seed art like you've never seen it

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

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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.

Published 3:00 am Mon, Oct 12, 2009

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

20 Responses to “Crop Art Is For Everyone!”

  1. Anonymous says:

    i go to the fair every year,the seed art section shares a room with thousands of dry corn cobs behind chicken wire and a wall covered with old seed sacks that are right up there with old orange box labels.people look at all this stuff and talk about it,it’s just not eye wash.you can’t get near the prize pumpkin and the best hog for the crowds.
    in the dairy cow barn you can walk right up to them,no ropes to keep you back.the farm kids who show these sleep on hay bales right there.this is all going on with the glass offices towers of Minneapolis minutes away.
    being from NY and transplanted to MN in the late 60’s i came to see that the whole thing about winter and people having too much time on there hands is really true.the display cases of bread,cookies and jam all trying for that prized blue ribbon are not to be missed.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “This Abe Lincoln–again, all seeds, including the background–is one of hers.”

    This is incorrect.
    The portrait is done on seed on a cut-to-shape board, which is mounted on a fabric-covered background and then framed.

    The Judy Garland portrait is done the same way, which you can tell because of the shadow around the figure.

    Her work is still amazing, but I just wanted to clear that up.

  3. mrklingon says:

    The best source about this (and *how* did you miss it?) is http://www.cropart.com – galleries of art by many artists, and links to information on the annual competition.

  4. Anonymous says:

    as a lifelong minnesotan and fairgoer, the crop art was always one of my very first required stops at the fair. the advent of more ‘hip’ and political entries is a pretty recent phenomenon – within the last ten years or so – and it’s been fun to watch the art evolve. what a surprise and treat to see the crop art from that little room full of FFA corn and old grain sacks on boingboing!

  5. Anonymous says:

    One of my State Fair favorites, from about 7 years ago, was the lovely and perfectly seeded Jackie O smoking a cigg. Fantastic.

  6. Ned613 says:

    The “Creature from the Black Lagoon” should be called “Creature from the Black Legume”

  7. coaxial says:

    Glad to see that Jesus finally cut his hair and got a shave. The sweater vest is a bit of a shock though.

  8. Pantograph says:

    For everyone? I would think that it would only be available for those with access to crops.

    Both cheers and sounds of confusion are heard from several inuit villages. Do seal teeth count as a crop?
    Graphic designers in high office buildings are wondering whether use of the crop tool counts.
    Barbers speak out that this proves that a cropped hairdo is just as artful as a beehive.

  9. AnoniMouse says:

    I LOVE love LOVE this.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for including my “Conan O’Brien on a Shtick” piece in your mighty fine crop art story. (Maybe I could have titled it “Conan the Agrarian” instead?) For those of you living in Minnesota, take a stab at entering something at next year’s state fair. Sure, it’s frustrating to chase an errant millet seed around with a toothpick while trying to finish a piece at 2:30 am the night before it’s due, but it’s all worth it to see fairgoers laugh and point at your work. — Kimberly Cope, Minneapolis

  11. lakelady says:

    fascinating. Reminds me of the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Every year the entire building is redecorated with corn. Certainly qualifies as see art on a grand scale.

  12. Anne K. says:

    I love the crop art at the Fair! I was thinking that maybe I would try my hand at it this year. It sort of looks fun.

  13. wordmeme says:

    Really liked this post.
    As a Minnesotan, my local library acquired the book: “Seed Queen: The Story of Crop Art and the Amazing Lillian Colton” by Colleen Sheehy. You may want to enjoy more of this kitschy, but very real folk art. I never knew our state fair was so hip and obscure at once!

  14. cinemajay says:

    @Pantograph, if you were able to find the Internet to comment this morning, you can order seeds online.

    Burpee, Parkseed, and about a dozen others that come up on Google.

    Oh, and the Inuit have been doing just fine online.

    /Assumptions! Aren’t they just silly!
    //LOVE the Fair!
    ///Go Maggie!

    • Anonymous says:

      You can also trade seeds online. It would take an initial purchase of some seeds, but if you try for some rarities, there are online communities who trade for whatever seeds they are looking for.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I know the woman who did the Creature from the Black Lagoon. She also recently did a portrait of the wrestler, Baron Von Rashcke for a local baseball game.

    http://cropart.blogspot.com/2009/08/thurs-aug-27-st-paul-saints-and-crop.html

  16. Anonymous says:

    Why does one first lady have a parrot and the other first lady
    a monkey? Ask Frida Kahlo.

    The group of artists that have done the seed mosaics at the State Fair are a wide slice of commercial and fine artists as well as the Grandma Moses types like Lillian. A retrospective of the banned crop art (the art show is moderated) would show a
    real Minnesota perspective that is like a Cohen brothers film.

  17. Chainsaw says:

    Anyone who can buy groceries (perhaps some urbanites ONLY eat in restaurants?) can buy enough seeds to do this – you don’t even need to go to a specialty store, let alone shop online.

    Celery seed, mustard seed, whole cumin & coriander, fenugreek… many spices are seeds in their whole form. And then there’s beans, and grains. Dozens of each. Many fruits have usable seeds. In an urban area, you can also usually find ethnic food stores, giving even more options.

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