On a rainy Saturday morning, a song by John Denver echoed through Marine Mills Folk School as seed spreads covered a classroom table.
Country roads brought a dozen crop art connoisseurs to the small town of Marine on St. Croix to attempt their own seed-based work.
“It [crop art] It’s such an unusual type of art, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said homeroom teacher Liz Schreiber, who has won first place at the Minnesota State Fair for her plant art seven times since 2004. “So it’s a Minnesota thing. I don’t know that anyone else does that at their folk festival.”
In 1965, the Minnesota State Fair introduced Crop Art as a new competitive category to enter. It was first used as an educational tool to introduce fair-goers to Minnesota plants. Then—and to this day—only seeds from Minnesota agricultural crops are allowed. No wild plant seeds, white rice or sesame seeds may be used.
Years ago, when Schreiber first visited the Agriculture-Horticulture building, like many trade show-goers, she stood in line to see the plant art. And she decided to try to create her own.
“The more I played around with it, the more I wanted to continue with it,” she said.
In creating iconic portraits ranging from Joan Jett to The Bride of Frankenstein to Little Richard, Schreiber has drawn inspiration from powerful historical and social figures. When she’s not preparing her piece for the upcoming fair, she’s teaching beginner classes for those interested in plant crafts.
Robin Brooksbank, the founder of Marine Mills Folk School, said they’re always looking for classes that teach skills. When she encountered Schreiber, she knew she would fit right into her arts-centric class.
“When I first went to the fair, I stumbled upon the crop art exhibit and it was just quirky, a little bit camp, and I just loved it. It’s the first place I stop before grabbing a Pronto Pup. I just assumed that’s how everyone in Minnesota felt 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 attendees would receive a seed kit with instructions and a design. Saturday marked the first time the crop art class was offered in person since the pandemic began.
Art Wineman was on a waiting list to be accepted into the course. He said hearing about being hit made him feel happy.
Wineman and his wife moved to Minnesota in 1980 and live near the State Fairgrounds. In one year they went to Mass eight times.
“Up until the pandemic, I didn’t miss either the fair or crop art. Not a year,” he said. “We always have to watch people and see the crop art.”
Wineman retired five months ago and said he’s looking forward to exploring the arts. He recently joined the Catholic Church – so he chose to depict a chalice and communion bread for his play. Though he doesn’t think he’ll submit his piece at this year’s fair, he said he plans to spend the next year perfecting an entry.
Participants either drew on their drawing boards or used carbon paper to trace their designs from photographs. Then attention turned to Elmer’s glue, a toothpick, and seeds. Lots and lots of seeds.
Bruce Lindquist said he’s not overly concerned with his skill – he draws and burns wood. Lately he’s been adding more detail to his art. He said that trying crop art felt like a natural next step.
“I just thought I’d try. I get a kick out of all the political renditions, all sorts of ideas in that area pop into my head,” he said.
While some of the artists tried their hand at freehand drawing or used photos of bears, flowers, or dragonflies provided, Kathleen James knew what she wanted to do before she walked in the door: a portrait of her dog, Gary Cooper.
It wasn’t James’ first time creating crop art—she’d made some when she was in kindergarten, using dyed seeds (also not allowed at the state county fair), sunflower seeds, and popcorn. She first drew a portrait of her dog based on a photo – but then decided to change the design to one of her other favorite photos of him in a Halloween costume as a sunflower.
“The sunflower is tougher than you think. I don’t think I’ll be showing Gary Cooper (at the show) but I’m having dinner with my mum and sister tonight – I’m sure they’re going to love it,” she said.
Throughout the course, Schreiber made sure to encourage participants to submit their pieces to the show, even if they felt they weren’t good; each piece is displayed.
Jan Storms, who chose to create a crop art hippo, said she may submit her piece once she’s done. Storms were prepared with tweezers, which some artists use to position their seeds, but toothpicks seemed to do the trick.
“The shading is really difficult, but otherwise it was easier than I thought. It was like, ‘Oh, I can actually do this.’ I don’t know if my play will be good enough to enter, but if I feel like, you know, maybe I will,” she said.
The closing date for crop art at the show is Friday 12 August at 4:30pm. This year’s fair will take place from August 25th to September 5th.
Show attendees can watch Schreiber live in action each day at 12:00 p.m. as he creates crop art in the Southwest Wing of the Horticulture Building with the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.