In Eagan, Van Gogh's 'Olive Trees' is a planting, not a painting

Aerial view of the site
Staff at Thomson Reuters, which owns the site in Eagan, Minn., where Stan Herd is at work, are documenting the development of the image using cameras mounted on low-flying drones. This image was taken on the evening of July 28, 2015.
Jeff Ferguson | Courtesy Thomson Reuters

If you are flying into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport over the next couple of months, here's a tip: Book your seat on the left side of the airplane. That should give you the best view of a huge artwork taking shape in Eagan.

In a field below the flight path, Stan Herd and some helpers are at work with tools and plants. It's not immediately obvious, but Stan Herd is recreating a work by Vincent van Gogh called "Olive Trees."

"I feel very connected to the man here," Herd said. "That may be hubris, but I just do. I'm getting to live in a Van Gogh painting."

Kansas artist Stan Herd
Kansas artist Stan Herd has built a career creating huge images in fields and other open spaces around the world.
Tina Ayodele | MPR News

Herd is internationally known for his earthworks. By careful planting, grooming and tending, he transforms open spaces, whether fields or derelict urban lots, into brilliantly colored artworks.

When the Minneapolis Institute of Art invited him to create a work based on something in its collection as part of its 100th anniversary celebration, Herd said, he leapt at the chance.

And his first choice was "Olive Trees," which Van Gogh painted in 1889, just before he died. Herd carries a battered photocopy of the painting with him as a reference.

"There's a lot of movement in this painting," he said. "And so that will be my task over the next six weeks ... to try to pull colors in."

The original painting is about 29 inches by 36. Herd's version covers about an acre. A slash of paint smaller than a fingernail on the canvas is yards long on the ground.

From the ground, it's hard to see the work. That's where Herd's photocopy is vital. He's marked it off in a grid and uses it to pinpoint where he needs to dig, plant and mow.

The master plan
To create Van Gogh's "Olive Trees" Stan Herd made the master plan for the project with a grid. There was a small panic recently when the now-tattered piece of paper disappeared. It turned out it had fallen upside down onto some dirt and took some time to find.
Tina Ayodele | MPR News

He's got to time things perfectly. The piece is to be finished around Sept. 10. To create a brilliant yellow sunlit sky, he's planted oats. They're green now, but will ripen to a gold color.

"There's the sun, and there's the oats," he said, pointing. "And when these mature, I'll mow them out concentrically, somewhat in the style of Van Gogh's palette."

It's still kind of hard to see. And that's where Rick King, Thomson Reuters' chief operating officer for technology, comes in.

"Suddenly somebody comes up to me and says, 'Hey, you own some land underneath the approach to the airport, where we want to do some crop art.' And I said, 'What's crop art?'"

King found out fast, and got on board. This land is part of the Thomson Reuters Eagan campus. It lies in the flight path for planes landing from the south at Minneapolis-St. Paul International. They pass by every 90 seconds or so at about 2,000 feet. It's pretty much a perfect viewing distance for Herd's work, for those on the left side of the plane.

King and his staff have also been using drones to document the artwork as it's developed, with both still photos and video.

The art work at ground level.
Stan Herd has etched the image of Van Gogh's "Olive Trees" into the site using a combination of lines cut with a rototiller, and careful moving and planting of colorful plants. It's tough to see from ground level, but the finished image will bloom in early to mid-September.
Tina Ayodele | MPR News

Kristin Prestegaard, the Minneapolis Institute of Art's chief audience engagement officer, said the "Olive Trees" project is perfect as a celebration of the institute's centennial.

"To take a piece like Van Gogh that is legendary in the collection and couple it with a living artist with just a new take on art," she said — "we love the connection of legacy and contemporary."

At the Eagan site, Stan Herd keeps hard at work. Like anyone who works the land, he keeps an eye on the weather.

"I've seen rains come up to my field within a mile, and disperse, and go around," he said with a laugh. "But usually I have good luck."

Correction (Aug. 6, 2015): An earlier version of this story misidentified Rick King's title. He is Thomson Reuters' chief operating officer for technology. The story had been updated.