On a sweaty afternoon this week, Kansas artist Stan Herd channeled the spirit of Vincent Van Gogh as he dug a shallow furrow in the loam of an Eagan field.
Airplanes rumbled low overhead en route to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport across the Mississippi River. Passengers glancing down might have caught a glimpse of Herd’s work: a 1.2-acre interpretation of Van Gogh’s 1889 painting “Olive Trees.”
Van Gogh’s original hangs at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The museum commissioned Herd to do a crop-art interpretation of the painting for the museum’s centennial this year. The project will be finished in September, but outlines of the scene are already visible.
“It’s an iteration of Van Gogh’s painting writ large in native plants and materials,” Herd said, adding that “the opportunity to engage with one of my favorite artists in the world was pretty unique for me.”
Herd, 64, is known for huge images that he shapes by plowing, planting, mowing and otherwise sculpting the earth. His first was a 160-acre portrait of Kiowa Indian chief Satanta that he carved into the Kansas prairie in 1979.
Subsequent projects — executed throughout the United States and as far off as Cuba, England and Australia — include a gigantic vase of sunflowers, a fish maze inspired by ancient fossils, and the head of the Statue of Liberty mowed into a wheat field.
Most of his art is transitory, disappearing at the end of the growing season when fields are plowed or prairie grasses obscure the scenes. One of his rare permanent pieces is a portrait in grass and stone of aviator Amelia Earhart, commissioned by her hometown Atchison, Kan.
Though Herd’s work is often called “crop art,” it is not necessarily grown from seed. The Van Gogh project, for example, is more like “mowed art,” consisting of an image cut into a meadow of long grass and wildflowers. He outlined the design by rototilling a frame around the edge and then trimming the interior grass at various heights. Furrows dug in strategic spots cast shadows that accentuate certain features as if they are pieces in a puzzle — gnarled tree trunks, shaggy leaves, shadows and mountains, a bowl of sky.
“The most important thing is to have a pristine canvas and something to subtract from,” Herd said, referring to the meadow grass. “If we had more time, I could have planted soybeans, sorghum, wheat — but I’m using different types of squash, gourds, and melons. Time may even push us to bring in some things in pots.”
In Van Gogh’s painting, the sky is a frenzy of dappled yellow around a golden sun.
“I wanted to plant wheat for the sky because Van Gogh painted wheat fields, but oats grow better here, so I planted that,” Herd said. “I hope it will grow up in 50 days. Then I’ll mow it down in concentric circles” like the painting.
Farming ‘was not my thing’
Born in Protection, Kan., Herd grew up on a 160-acre farm that was homesteaded by his grandfather and is still owned by one of his four brothers. By age 5 he knew he wanted a different life.
“I’ve never been a farmer,” he said. “They work 70 hours a week and that was not my thing. I wanted to go off to art school and drink wine and be an artist.”
He attended Wichita State University for a time but “found it fairly boring,” so he went to Colorado. In his 20s he returned to Kansas and settled in Lawrence, “which was a pretty hip place at one point.”
The Eagan project is the most recent in an ambitious series of weekly surprises and events that the Minneapolis museum is staging this year to mark its 100th birthday. The program has included displays of masterpieces by Vermeer and Raphael, exhibitions of Austrian royal treasures and a Leonardo da Vinci manuscript, plus art reproduced on water towers and shown in gas stations and parks.
Herd inspired the award-winning 2011 film “Earthwork” — starring Minnesota-born Oscar nominee John Hawkes as Herd — when he transformed a derelict acre of New York City into a bucolic prairie. His more commercial projects have incorporated a Northwest Airlines logo, a gigantic bottle of Absolut vodka, and promotions for a Garth Brooks album and a Mel Brooks film.
Unlike the popular corn mazes that visitors can walk through, Herd’s works are strictly flyover art, designed to be seen from the air.
“When you’re on the ground level you can’t tell what the cuts even look like, but when you get up there you can see the patterns,” said Rick King, chief operating officer in charge of technology at Thomson Reuters, an international business-advisory firm headquartered in Eagan.
King, who is on the board of both the Minneapolis museum and the Metropolitan Airports Commission, enthusiastically endorsed Herd’s request to do the “Olive Trees” project in a meadow on Thomson Reuters’ 300-acre campus.
“If you are landing from the southeast and flying to the northwest, it will be on your left-hand side as you approach the airport,” he said.
King plans to request left-side seats if he flies in the next few months, because “how often can you look out a plane window and see Van Gogh’s ‘Olive Trees’?”