I can tell by the soles of my feet as I walk through the dining room what kind of summer it’s going to be.
The first indications come in March or early April, but it’s clear by early July. It’s about how many seeds and tiny grains stick to the foot as I move about our house in St. Paul. Only a few? Might be a light year with just a couple of entries. A vast sprawl sprayed out like closing time at the feed store? Yeah, it’s going to be a busy year for art.
My wife is an artist and for the last several years, her primary medium has been the crop art competition at the Minnesota State Fair. Jill’s participation started as a lark, a fun thing to do one summer. It has stayed fun but has become more of a sober, dedicated commitment, carried out as a seasonal ritual held among various piles of spilled seeds native to our adopted home of Minnesota. Jill’s entries have spanned subcategories: irregular arrangements, special occasion, wearable and even birdhouse, for which she collected a blue ribbon. In fact, she has a sizable collection of ribbons of various colors and is proud of them, although she always rejects my suggestion that she pin them all to her chest when she goes to the fair so she could look like a decorated military general.
The pieces often have built-in jokes. “Hall in Oats” depicts singer Daryl Hall, of Hall & Oates, and his majestic ’80s hair done up in oats. Last year’s “Soy Division” recreates Joy Division’s iconic “Unknown Pleasures” album cover with lines of soy beans and a little tractor.
Other times, it’s just, like, a picture of a goat. The ideas appear to her, as if via some crop art god. Some have been put together fairly quickly as the August deadline approached while others have been in process since January, when I’d come across her on a dark, cold night meticulously applying canola and amaranth with tweezers beneath a bright desk light.
Our daughters have become crop artists as well. Kate’s portrait of actor Adam Scott won her a blue ribbon several years ago. Kate retired soon after. Marge, our youngest, got a blue ribbon in 2019 for “Crop-ala Harris,” a portrait of Sen. Kamala Harris of California. That piece also landed her in the Best of Show and Reserve for her division, a fact we never go long without hearing from her. Her previous entry of “Senator Amy Crop-uchar” got her invited on stage with Sen. Klobuchar at a State Fair presidential campaign speech. Amy promised to hang it in the White House. Charlie, our oldest, has seen the intensity with which our family pursues crop art and kept a wary distance. My lone entry, a portrait of Vladimir Putin featuring primarily gluten-based plants titled “Vladimir Gluten” earned no ribbons at all.
It’s the most Minnesota thing we do.
Our family moved here in 2008 from Seattle for a job and all the other regular reasons: good schools, little traffic, more house for the dollar. Upon arriving, we got two surprises. One was the State Fair. On our first day in St. Paul, a neighbor asked if we were excited to go. “Sure,” I said, “Is it this weekend?”
“No,” she said. “It starts in late August.” It was early March at the time.
Surprise number two was the democratic nature of art in the Twin Cities, how it’s for everybody and it involves everybody. It’s Art Shanty with bizarre houses on a frozen lake. It’s Northern Spark with artists and art fans giddily checking out the overnight offerings. It’s the fact that I could help create the stage and radio show “Wits” and put important performing artists in sketches about Murder Cat. And it’s my family’s crop art at the fair. (Note that part of our incentive is financial. Category winners can earn up to the very low two figures.) Crop art is inherently ridiculous and at the same time beautifully noble because Minnesotans are experts at making fun of themselves and at the same time celebrating themselves.
I’ll be honest, the silty layer of seeds on the floor used to annoy me every summer. But as I’ve gotten used to them, they make me happy. They feel like home.
John Moe of St. Paul created the award-winning hit podcast “The Hilarious World of Depression” and authored the book of the same name.