Crop art is a mosaic made of seeds. In the Minnesota State Fair crop art competition, it is specifically a mosaic made from seeds that can be grown in Minnesota. I have a lot of family outside of the state, and when they tell their friends what I do, usually people think of crop circles, as in, “She drives a tractor and makes crop circles?” I guess crop art is a Minnesota thing.
It was the Minnesota State Fair that really popularized crop art, especially through the work of the late Lillian Colton, who entered and then displayed her work for years, and was a master of the medium. Her crop art portraits demonstrated how detailed and precise you can be when working with seeds. But also crop art ties into our state’s farming history. 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.
I really thought about my favorite aspects of the fair. There are certain things that I must do each year. Looking at the piece, you’ll see that ‘corn’ is a big theme: roasted corn, corn dogs. Plus, I always love the antique tractors (Old Iron Show) on Machinery Hill. Cattle and all the animals are also a huge draw for me. And the Ferris wheel is such an iconic symbol of the fair.
I thought about the elements of the fair that I find near and dear to me, and that are iconic and timeless. I started with the Guernsey cow, smack dab in the middle. That was the first element – inspired by the billboard on Como Avenue with the two cow heads. Part of why I love it is because it’s there year-round and it’s a nice reminder that, even in the dead of winter, the fair is coming.
The tractors are antique models by Minneapolis-Moline, because I worked for someone who had one that they were restoring and so I saw it in person quite a bit. I also wanted a banner-type ribbon to represent State Fair ribbons. I like to have symmetry in my artwork by using mirroring images, so you’ll see that depicted in the work. Then it becomes a game of making images pop, because I always use natural color seeds, which makes the color palette somewhat neutral. But this year, I found a new element I’d never used before, which is the bluish-purple color, by using lavender flower seeds. I found those in the tea section United Noodles, an Asian food store in Minneapolis. I tried to generally stick to the rules for Minnesota State Fair crop art competition, which means using only seeds from commercial Minnesota crops. The exception was some big round palm seeds, which are not native to Minnesota. I was given a giant jug of palm seeds by my friend’s mom who had saved them for me and labeled them “for Nancy’s friend.” I thought that was really sweet, and that this would be a good opportunity to use them.
Once I decided on which images to include, I drew them on tracing paper so I could shuffle them around while deciding on the layout. Next, I did a pencil drawing, and then added underpainting using watercolors and gouache (an opaque type of paint, similar to watercolor) to fill in the microgaps that occur when you are using very small, round seeds. Because I work with round elements, I can’t get the sides to line up precisely, and I end up with tiny triangles of space. This process also gives a nice map to start from so I know where to use different colors and where to add highlights and shadows.
To add the seeds, I used a toothpick and Elmer’s glue. In a detailed area, I placed each seed individually. For the big background area, I usually use a ‘glitter’ method, where I apply glue, chuck on the seeds and then gently shake off the excess. This year, I figured out a new process. Because the piece was so big, and was difficult to shake out, I used a mini Dustbuster vacuum to remove the excess seeds, and then carefully emptied those out so I could use them for something else. It worked really well!
The finished piece is 22” by 30” and includes 29 different types of seeds. I worked on this artwork full time for six weeks, seven days per week. It took me approximately 300 hours total, not including the frame.
I enjoy having that outlet – the woodworking and painting. A lot of times, the frames are like a palate cleanser where I can get away from the intricate detail of crop art and instead create a pattern that I find pleasing. In this piece, I used the frame to invoke the fair’s nightly fireworks. I ran out of room to include them in the piece itself, so I used the frame to add them in. Although they are not part of the printed poster, I liked that the piece itself includes them.
That the size of the piece does not necessarily dictate how much time it will take to create. For example, a large piece can take a lot of time because there is more space to fill, but even when you do something smaller, it can take a long time because there is a lot more importance to the placement of each individual seed.
When I started doing crop art, it was strictly for fun. While attending graduate school at the University of Minnesota, I met a good friend who was a huge State Fair fan, and she turned me onto the crop art exhibit. That quickly became a favorite of mine, and in 2004, I decided to give it a shot. The two of us would get together and work on our pieces. I used cropart.com to learn about how to do it. And because I already had a background in fine art, it wasn’t too big of a leap to give it a try.
I studied sculpture and printmaking as an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University. I’m originally from Virginia. I moved to Minnesota in 1995 to attend graduate school at the U of M, where I studied costume and set design. While at the U, I learned a lot about scenic painting and right out of grad school started freelancing at the Guthrie Theater and worked there for several years. I have done costumes for VEE Corporation, making feet for Sesame Street Live costumes. I have bounced around between many jobs and a lot of different media. I have worked doing costumes, set photography work, set building, backdrops, faux finish stuff. I have been freelancing for 20 years. I also have a background in sewing, and have a fledgling custom western-wear business in the works. I’ve basically dabbled in all sorts of artistic endeavors.
I do! I always say that the State Fair is one of the best galleries that you could possibly hang your work in, because it gets so many viewers. I’m planning to enter a category I haven’t tried before – wearable crop art! And then I’ll hopefully enter another piece in the Natural Colored Seeds, Advanced category. I’ve entered every year since 2004 and have won 26 ribbons, including seven blue ribbons and one reserve champion ribbon.
Eastside Food Coop in Northeast Minneapolis is great. For more specialized seeds that are geared toward farmers, I use Jordan Seed in Saint Paul; they sell a lot of flower and vegetable seeds. And a new place I like is Twin Cities Seeds – they sell a lot of golf course seeds. They are great – because a lot of what they sell is in these giant 50-pound bags and their usual customers don’t care what the seeds look like, just what they grow. After I explained what I do as a crop artist, they let me come in and take a look.
Super thrilled! It still feels kind of surreal. I knew about the fair’s commemorative art program and would always check out the posters each year to see other artists’ work. And though I don’t know any of the other artists personally, I am aware of the artwork by previous commemorative artists such as Adam Turman, Michael Sweere and Leslie Barlow.
I’d send them to cropart.com – it has some great tutorial videos and information on where to get supplies. And the State Fair’s own website, mnstatefair.org, is also a wonderful resource. It clearly spells out all the rules for crop art competition and a list of what is acceptable and what is not allowed. There is also a Facebook group for getting live answers to your questions. The crop art community is really supportive; it’s a nice group of people.
I just want them to experience the beauty, fun and history of the fair and just the joy of it all.