This year, their works won’t hang on hallowed pegboard.
But even with the State Fair canceled, Minnesota’s most dedicated artists are spending their August days and nights as they always do — gluing poppy seed after poppy seed, lentil after lentil.
These crop artists don’t do it for the blue ribbon. Which is good, because no ribbons will be bestowed this year. They do it because it would feel strange not to take these humble materials — rye, flax, red millet — and nudge them with a toothpick, transforming them into detailed portraits, pun-packed cartoons and searing political statements.
“I only missed one year — and I felt horribly guilty,” said Linda Koutsky, a crop artist who has won so many ribbons that she’s lost count. (“I don’t remember. ... I have a whole box of ribbons here.”) So for the virtual version of the beloved contest (at mnstatefair.org/competitions), she’s “whipping something up.”
Organizers announced that virtual showcase three weeks ago, knowing that “loyal die-hards” would demand a crop art contest, said Danielle Dullinger, a State Fair spokesperson. “We could not leave that competition out.”
Entries have more than doubled in recent years, from 144 in 2013 to 324 last year. “It’s just become so dang popular,” Dullinger said. To smooth congestion in the Ag Building, as it’s known, the fair created two lanes around the crop art display — one for those who want to hurry and one for those who want to linger, to lean in, to photograph.
“If that doesn’t sum up how passionate Minnesotans are about their crop art, I don’t know what does,” Dullinger said.
Some crop artists start sorting their seeds in winter, preparing their easel. (A single handful of hand-harvested wild rice can contain onyx, cream and copper.) Teresa Anderson began building her piece, a 3-D pot sprouting delicate, nubby flowers, in February, because “when it’s summer, I prefer to be outside.”
When she heard the fair was scotched, she stopped and sealed the near-finished piece in a Rubbermaid box. Next year, she thought.
With crop art, unlike other crafts, “there’s no other reason for it except for the State Fair,” said Anderson, 66, of St. Paul. “You can knit or bake or grow zucchini and you have some reason you’re doing it.”
But crop art? It’s specific to this weird, wondrous gathering.
“It’s this wonderfully democratic canvas,” said Jill Moe, who in 2015 created “Hall in Oats,” a portrait of singer Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates, his wavy mane rendered in — you guessed it — oats. Moe, an art major, compared the medium to tramp art out of North Carolina, a folk tradition taking simple objects like cigar boxes and turning them into intricate, incredible pieces.
When the fair announced the virtual showcase earlier this month, artists shared the news on their Facebook group. “Hey friends — Get Croppin.’ ”
“Holy smokes! Get croppin’ indeed!” Moe posted.
Someone replied: “Don’t you mean Holy Crop.”
So Moe and other artists sprung into action — sketching, sorting, filing, gluing. This year’s rules are lax, the rewards less: An amateur and an advanced winner will nab tickets to next year’s fair. Entries photographed for this contest can be submitted next year, too. (If you can keep the critters from munching them in the meantime.)
Moe will miss visiting crop art’s home in the Agriculture Building, near glass displays of corn and seeds. “The space is just so perfect.” She’ll miss, too, the political takes that would have popped up across the pegboard. “An election year — what a loss!” And she’ll miss arriving early at the fairgrounds, when all the crop artists drop off their entries.
Crop artists are creative, meticulous, maybe a little obsessive-compulsive. But competitive? Nope. At least not outwardly.
They share tips: Sandpaper is “one of my favorite tools,” Moe said, when a grain refuses to lie flat. They debate the rules: Only crops grown in Minnesota are allowed, so where does that leave quinoa?
“It’s not exactly a cutthroat kind of a thing,” said Julie Blaha, Minnesota State Auditor, who first advertised her run for that office in four types of beans and a pun: “Bean counter. Literally.”
This month, she gathered crop artists for a virtual campaign fundraiser, with donation levels ranging from mung bean to wild rice, her “absolute favorite crop to work with.”
Blaha used plenty of that handsome grain on this year’s piece — one of First Avenue’s iconic stars against black brick. Both she and the venue turned 50 this year. She knew the star wouldn’t be complicated enough to win a ribbon. But she thought crowds — in person or online — would love it.
“Am I going for the ribbon?” she said. “Or am I going for the heart of the people?”
Seed art sprouted at the fair in 1965, to educate city folk about where their food came from. For many years, it leaned toward needlepoint patterns, said Koutsky, who co-authored a book on Minnesota State Fair history. Farm scenes, cornucopias, cute little roosters. Then the legendary Lillian Colton came along with her hyper-realistic portraits, inspiring a new crop of artists.
In the 1990s, a younger generation brought puns, politics and their own pop art sensibility. Think cans of Festal vegetables in the style of Andy Warhol. A Corn Palace triptych. Koutsky and her co-workers at the Science Museum — among them environmentalists and graphic designers — would host crop art parties, setting out jars filled with seeds.
Laura Melnick and her husband, Mark Dahlager, were part of that group. She was amazed by what artists were doing with “just Elmer’s glue and a toothpick.”
Melnick’s first attempt, in 1999, was “absolutely horrible,” she said, because she used the “tamp and pour method,” with messy results. The next year was pretty bad, too. But through the years, her designs got more detailed, her colors more gradated. The St. Paul resident has won more than 30 ribbons, including eight Best in Show.
Melnick often takes themes and characters from children’s books and adds a political twist. In 2003: President George W. Bush as Curious George, looking for weapons of mass destruction.
“I don’t know how these things come to me,” she said. “They just do.”
After two decades without a miss, she considered skipping this year, but her friends freaked. “It’s expected of me.” So she thought on it and it came to her. Sad-eyed Eeyore, his tail tied to a COVID-19 shaped balloon.