For Minnesota State Fair crop art fans, seeding is believing 

A woman sits at a table and works on a seed art
Crop artist Liz Schreiber works on piece inside the Agriculture Horticulture Building at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

It’s a bumper year for the Minnesota State Fair’s crop art exhibit. 

Artist Liz Schreiber, a veteran of the crop art competition, is this year’s State Fair commemorative artist. That means her work appears prominently on the fair’s official poster seen around the grounds, as well as on display in its original form.

A large crop art poster in a gallery
The original crop art version of Liz Schreiber’s commemorative State Fair poster is in the Fine Arts Building at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Another case in point, Superintendent of Farm Crops Ron Kelsey — whose collection of vintage seed bags adorns the walls of the crop arts hall — was elected to honorary life membership in the Minnesota State Agricultural Society. The society is the governing body of the fair.

The crop arts exhibit continues to be a fair favorite. This year’s exhibit features hundreds of entrants who have submitted in over two dozen categories. The seed mosaics include tributes to Barbie, memorials to the late comedian Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman and cheeky turns of phrase in praise of seed art. 

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A seed art piece depicting the character Pee-wee Herman
A winning piece of crop art depicts late actor Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman at the fair Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘It’s meditative’ 

Made from 29 kinds of seeds, Schreiber’s commemorative art pays tribute to what she loves most about the fair: its iconography.  

“It’s an amalgamation of a lot of different things that are very Minnesotan, like the variety of grains we grow, and our long winters, when we have more time on our hands and need something to keep us occupied,” Schreiber explained in June.

Encircled by a Ferris wheel and Skyride cars, the poster features a Guernsey cow. She drew inspiration from the cattle on a Como Avenue sign — a reminder that “even in the dead of winter, the fair is coming.”  

A pair of seed-encrusted cowboy boots
Liz Schreiber’s winning entry in the Wearable Crop Art category is a pair of seed-studded cowboy boots, on view at the fair Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Entering the competition for this year’s commemorative art, Schreiber made a small departure from the rules governing the seed art contest. 

“A friend of mine’s mom knew that I did crop art. And she sent me this giant jug of palm seeds. She put a piece of tape on it and wrote, ‘For Nancy’s friend.’” 

The friend’s mom had collected the large oval seeds from palms in Arizona.  

“I took a little liberty there,” the artist said. 

A seed hangs on the end of a toothpick
Liz Schreiber uses a toothpick to apply a single lettuce seed to a work-in-progress at the fair Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The original piece, which consumed 300 hours, not including the time spent crafting the frame, will be on display through Sept. 4 in the Fine Arts Center.

On the steamy first day of this year’s fair, she affixes the tiny seeds using a toothpick and Elmer’s glue.

“It’s very meditative. It’s kind of like doing a puzzle,” Schreiber said. “I like the challenge of trying to make something look like someone or something three-dimensional.” 

A collage of four lids filled with seeds
Seeds used by crop artist Liz Schreiber sit in mason jar lids at her demonstration table at the State Fair Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘We’re very much corn people!’

Another familiar face in the Horticulture building, Ron Kelsey, superintendent of farm crops, is back for his 76th year. His father entered corn in the fair for 52 years. Kelsey began attending the fair alongside his dad beginning at age 7.

A man smiles at the state fair
It's year 76 at the fair for Ron Kelsey, superintendent of farm crops, pictured among the crop art exhibit at the State Fair on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“We’re very much corn people!” 

Kelsey told an audience he is proud of his 1,400 cloth seed bags. “But who’s counting?”

On the first day, Kelsey rolls up his sleeve to reveal a forearm tattoo of an ear of corn — a gift from his children last year.

“If you get a tattoo at this age, and you don’t like it, you don’t have to live with it that long anyways,” Kelsey joked. 

Cloth seed bags hang on display
A selection of Ron Kelsey’s vintage cloth seed bags, all 1,400 of them. “But who’s counting?” he said.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The crop art exhibit is visited by over 200,000 visitors each year, Kelsey, the organizer said. 

As in the past puns abound. Rapper Snoop Dogg extolls viewers to “crop it like it’s hot.” A sandhill “grain” takes flight across a pond. A silver train darts by on “high seed rail.”  

There are plenty of honorific portraits. In addition to Pee-wee Herman balanced on a bicycle, there’s a laughing Tina Turner and a side-smiling Prince. Pieces celebrate trans people and Minnesota women in politics.

People walk past a crop art exhibit
Fairgoers visit the crop art exhibit Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: OK speaking of the state fair, the Crop Art exhibit at the fair has become a must-see. There have been long lines of people winding through the Ag Hort Building waiting to get an up close view of the intricate art made from seeds. Melissa Olson is a reporter at MPR. She joins us now to talk about this year's bumper crop of artworks. I had to say that, Melissa. How are you?

MELISSA OLSON: I'm good. How are you, Cathy?

CATHY WURZER: Good. Thanks for being here. So I understand the state fair's commemorative art is created by a crop artist. Tell us more about that.

MELISSA OLSON: Veteran crop artist Liz Schreiber describes crop art as a mosaic of seeds. This year, Schreiber has created commemorative art for the state fair. Her piece, which features a Guernsey cow, incorporates lots of state fair iconography-- ears of corn, vintage tractors, stars and ribbons. All images of the fair she says she just loves.

Her commemorative work for this year's fair is exhibited in the Fine Arts Center and can be seen on posters all around the fair. I talked with Liz just after she finished her demonstration on the first day of the fair. And what's just incredible is that she creates many of her works using a toothpick and Elmer's glue. I talked with her a little bit about what she likes about seeds as a medium.

LIZ SCHREIBER: It's very meditative. And it's kind of like doing a puzzle. You get into it and then you kind of become obsessed for a while. You have to kind of keep anticipating parts being done. And it's-- I like the challenge of trying to make something look like someone or something, three-dimensional, you know.

MELISSA OLSON: Another familiar face at the fair, Superintendent of Crop Arts Ron Kelsey was honored earlier this year as a life member by the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, the governing-- the governing body of the fair. This will be Ron Kelsey's 75th year at the fair.

And if you're at the Crop Art exhibit, Ron is almost sure to be nearby educating fairgoers about Minnesota seed. He's got such great stories to share. His collection of 1,400 vintage cloth seed bags are sort of a visual history of Minnesota farming.

CATHY WURZER: I love the vintage cloth seed bags. I think they're pretty cool. Tell us more about this year's Crop Arts exhibit and the competition itself.

MELISSA OLSON: I visited the Crop Arts exhibit on the first day of the fair. The line was trailing out the door of the hall. It's estimated that over 200,000 people visit the Crop Art exhibit each year. And like years past, there are hundreds of entrants into the competition in over two dozen categories.

One of the important rules of the competition requires artists to use only seeds native to Minnesota. But that's hardly a limitation when considering the breadth of artwork on display. Visitors see everything from portraits of celebrities and politicians to landscapes and three-dimensional art pieces.

CATHY WURZER: There are some pretty interesting entries. Did you have any favorites this year?

MELISSA OLSON: Well, I totally hope that everyone takes the opportunity to visit the Crop Arts exhibit. And yes, I did have some favorites and noticed some themes. Lots of good puns on seed art. I laughed out loud at the portrait of rapper Snoop Dogg that tells viewers to "crop it like it's hot." I also liked a 3D work that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the first cell phone call.

And there are several beautiful pieces paying tribute to the late comedian Paul Reubens and his character, Pee Wee Herman. There are several takes on Barbie. There are lots of cheeky pieces, one by our state auditor Julie Blaha, who asks people to join her in her role as state beancounter by guessing how many beans and seeds she's used to create her crop art piece. So lots of fun and lots to see and enjoy at this year's Crop Arts exhibit.

CATHY WURZER: I love the fact that Liz said that she looks at this as like a mosaic with seeds. You know? Like, I like that visual. You wouldn't ever try this, would you?

MELISSA OLSON: I would love to try this, actually. I just admire the fact that they do this with a toothpick and Elmer's glue. It does seem so, so meditative, requiring lots of concentration.

CATHY WURZER: Well, if you do it, I'll do it. How does that sound?

MELISSA OLSON: Absolutely.

CATHY WURZER: We'll do it together. OK, Melissa, thank you so much.

MELISSA OLSON: You're welcome, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Melissa Olson is a reporter for MPR News. By the way, we're going to have a story on our website later today where you can see some photos of the amazing Crop Art entries this year.

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