On a rainy Saturday morning, a John Denver song echoed through Marine Mills Folk School as spreads of seeds covered a classroom table.
Country roads brought a dozen crop art connoisseurs to the small town of Marine on St. Croix, to try their hand at creating their own seed-based works.
“It [crop art] is such an unusual type of art, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the class instructor, Liz Schreiber, who has won seven first-place ribbons at the Minnesota State Fair for her crop art since 2004. “It is such a Minnesota thing. I don’t know that there is anybody else doing this at their state fair.”
In 1965, the Minnesota State Fair introduced crop art as a new competition category to enter. It was first used as an educational tool to familiarize fair-goers with Minnesota crops. Then — and to this day — only seeds from Minnesota-grown farm crops are allowed. No wild plant seeds, white rice or sesame seeds may be used.
When Schreiber first visited the Agriculture Horticulture building years ago, like many fair-goers she waited in line to view the crop art. And she decided to try creating her own.
“The more I messed around with it, the more I wanted to keep going with it,” she said.
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In creating iconic portraits ranging from Joan Jett, to the Bride of Frankenstein, to Little Richard, Schreiber has sought inspiration in powerful historical and social figures. When she isn’t preparing her piece for the upcoming fair, she teaches beginner classes to those interested in the crop art craft.
Robin Brooksbank, the founder of Marine Mills Folk School, said they are always looking for classes that teach skills. When she came across Schreiber, she knew she would fit right in with their art-centered classes.
“The first time I went to the fair I stumbled across the crop art exhibit and it was just quirky, a little bit of camp, and I just loved it. It is the first place I stop before I grab a Pronto Pup. I just assumed everybody in Minnesota felt that way about crop art, I think almost everyone does,” Brooksbank said.
During COVID, Schreiber has offered a few virtual classes with Marine Mills Folk School where participants would receive a seed kit with instructions and a design. Saturday was the first time since the start of the pandemic that the crop art class was offered in-person.
Art Wineman was on a waiting list to get in the class. He said that when he heard he was bumped in, he felt lucky.
Wineman and his wife moved to Minnesota in 1980 and live near the state fairgrounds. One year, they went to the fair eight times.
“Up until the pandemic, I did not miss the fair once, or crop art. Not one year,” he said. “We always have to people-watch and see the crop art.”
Wineman retired five months ago and said he has been looking forward to exploring the arts. He recently joined the Catholic Church — so for his piece, he decided to depict a chalice and communion bread. While he doesn’t think he will enter his piece in this year’s fair, he said he plans to spend the next year perfecting an entry.
Participants either drew on their crop art board, or traced their designs from photographs using carbon copy paper. Then attention turned to Elmer’s glue, a toothpick and seeds. Lots and lots of seeds.
Bruce Lindquist said he wasn’t too worried about his skill level — he does drawings and wood burnings. Lately, he has been making his art more detailed. He said trying crop art felt like a natural next step.
“I just thought I would give it a shot. I get a kick out of all the political renditions, all kinds of ideas in that realm pop into my head,” he said.
While some of the artists took their shot at freehand drawing, or used supplied photos of bears, flowers or dragonflies, Kathleen James knew what she wanted to do before she walked through the door: A portrait of her dog, Gary Cooper.
It was not James’ first time creating crop art — she had made some when she was in nursery school using dyed seeds (also not allowed in the state fair), sunflower seeds and popcorn. She initially drew a portrait of her dog based off one photo — but then decided to alter the design to one of her other favorite photos of him, in a Halloween costume as a sunflower.
“The sunflower is harder than you would think. I don’t think I will show Gary Cooper (at the fair), but I am having dinner with my mother and sister tonight — I am sure they will love it,” she said.
Throughout the class, Schreiber made sure to encourage participants to enter their pieces in the fair, even if they do not think they are good; everyone’s piece gets displayed.
Jan Storms, who decided on creating a crop art hippopotamus, said she might enter her piece once she finishes. Storms came prepared with tweezers, which some artists use to position their seeds, but toothpicks seemed to do the trick.
“The shading is really hard, but otherwise it has been easier than I thought. It was like, ‘Oh, I can actually do this.’ I don’t know if my piece will be good enough to enter, but if I get the feeling down, you know, maybe I will,” she said.
The entry deadline for crop art at the fair is Friday, August 12 at 4:30 p.m. This year’s fair runs from Aug. 25 through Sept. 5.
Fair-goers can watch Schreiber live in action every day of the fair at noon, creating crop art in the southwest wing of the Horticulture building with the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.
SAM STROOZAS: Hi, Cathy. Thanks for having me. Yes, I'm very excited.
CATHY WURZER: I'm glad you're here. OK, now, for the uninitiated, what the heck is crop art?
SAM STROOZAS: Yeah, so it's essentially what it sounds like. It is creating art out of seeds. So what people will do is trace a design with carbon paper and copy that over onto a board. Or they might freehand draw a design that they've had in mind, and then they'll use Elmer's glue to follow along the outline. And then they'll use a toothpick to push around seeds and decide where they want their seeds to go, what colors they want to use. Some advanced artists may use tweezers too, but it's very unique to the Midwest, which makes it all the more special.
CATHY WURZER: OK this sounds fairly simple just on the face of it, but I'm guessing it is not.
SAM STROOZAS: That's kind of what I thought going into it. I know the more intricate ones definitely take more time. Someone that I spoke to who has been at the State Fair a lot spent over 80 hours on one piece. And I don't believe anyone finished that day. We had three hours, and people were about halfway through, but no one walked away with a complete piece.
CATHY WURZER: OK, so you went to this class, and did you attempt to do a piece?
SAM STROOZAS: I did not myself. It had me thinking that I really should attempt one-- to do one. But it was about a dozen people at Marine Mills Folk School at Marine on the Saint Croix, so it's about an hour drive from my apartment. I got there. I go in. There's bluegrass music playing, John Denver, and we just start going with the seeds. People pick out what seeds they want. They had some designs. And some people did free-handed stuff, and then some people just copied over pictures that they had.
CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering, does it-- the seeds must be the key to everything, right, to pick the right seeds for what you're doing?
SAM STROOZAS: Yes. So the seeds are basically the central art form with crop art, but there's only some seeds that are actually allowed when you're entering the Minnesota State Fair. So they practice that regardless, just so people know what is allowed and what's not allowed if they decide to use their pieces. So the State Fair does not allow wild plant seeds, white rice, sesame seeds, or dyed seeds. And all the seeds used have to be from Minnesota-grown crops.
CATHY WURZER: I love the fact that you did a story on crop art where some people were there for the very first time. What did they say about this?
SAM STROOZAS: Yeah, so a lot of the people there had seen it at the State Fair, and they were really excited to work on a hands-on activity that they had valued and really admired over the years. I talked to someone who has visited the agriculture and horticulture building, they said, about 40 times over the last 40 years. They went every year but 2020 with COVID, and they said they were super excited to do it themselves. Some said it was harder than they thought, some said it was easier, but definitely a lot of patience, and focus, and non-shaky hands was key.
CATHY WURZER: That is the key, the non-shaky hands. One of the artists I know that'll be at the fair this year is Liz Schreiber. Can you tell me about her work?
SAM STROOZAS: Yeah. So Liz has won seven first place ribbons at the State Fair. She started crop art in 2004 after seeing it in the agriculture and horticulture building like us. And then she just teaches crop art classes on the side. So she focuses on portraits. She's done the Bride of Frankenstein, Joan Jett. She did a Little Richard portrait. That was the one that took over 80 hours. So she'll be making crop art every day at noon in the agriculture and horticulture building with the U of M.
CATHY WURZER: So I did not know. I figured that crop art was done in other states, like Iowa, right? But I didn't realize it was really a Minnesota tradition.
SAM STROOZAS: Yeah. So Minnesota says crop art instead of seed art to honor the farmers and localize the angle a little bit more with the type of seeds that are allowed. So people use all different kinds of seeds, but some popular ones are gold flax or red quinoa. And it is the most popular in Minnesota, but there is a Corn Palace in South Dakota--
CATHY WURZER: Oh, yeah.
SAM STROOZAS: --that was actually built in 1892 with outer walls that are covered in corn.
CATHY WURZER: Sam, have you seen that, by the way, the Corn Palace?
SAM STROOZAS: I have not.
CATHY WURZER: You must. You must. It's a bucket list item.
SAM STROOZAS: Yeah, for sure.
CATHY WURZER: Yeah. So I know you're a fan. So this year you're going to go, and what do you think you might see?
SAM STROOZAS: Yeah, I have always loved crop art and just going to the State Fair in general. I go every year with my parents multiple times, even though I am from Wisconsin. I just think it's very unique, and it represents our state so well. And it's important to thank the farmers who put food on our tables. And I'm looking forward to seeing pieces about the current political climate and local music icons, like Lizzo, now that her new album has dropped.
CATHY WURZER: Oh, I didn't think about that. That would be pretty cool. Sam, you're going to have to, of course, enter something somewhere along the line. That's your next step. You know that, right?
SAM STROOZAS: I think I'll spend the next few years maybe trying to perfect seed art on my own.
CATHY WURZER: I can see you doing that. Sam, thank you for the report. Great job.
SAM STROOZAS: Thank you.
CATHY WURZER: Sam Stroozas is a digital producer at MPR News. You might want to check out the crop art story by going to mprnews.org.
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