Sowing Discord at Minnesota’s Seed Art Competition

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — The longest line at the second biggest state fair in the United States wasn’t for the prize cows, roller coaster rides, or various deep-fried foods served on a stick: It was for the seed art. 

The wait was worth it. Past scores of vintage seed sacks and neatly stacked corn cobs vying for Best of Show ribbons, visitors craned their necks to marvel at the bounty of intricate mosaics made completely out of seeds at the Minnesota State Fair, which ran from August 24 to September 4. While the vast majority of participating crop artists were Minnesotans, the country’s only state fair seed art competition has also graciously expanded its dozens of categories to include out-of-state competitors, as long as they stick to one rule: Every seed must be grown in Minnesota. 

I was struck not just by this craft’s painstaking nature but also by the diversity of its subject matter, which ranges from impressive portraits and still lifes to timely pop culture references and biting political commentary. This year’s show included tributes to lost luminaries (Judy Heumann, Paul Reubens aka Pee Wee Herman), hot pink Barbie memorabilia, OceanGate (“the little sub that couldn’t”), excitement over Minnesota’s marijuana legalization, displays of support for trans youth and adults, clap backs to Ron DeSantis (“Minnesota, where woke goes to bloom!”), and lots and lots of yacht-smashing orcas. 

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Hundreds of seed art mosaics line the wall of the Agriculture Horticulture Building at the Minnesota State Fair.

This year there were over 400 submissions of crop art, which covered both seed art and the adjacent (also delightful) scarecrow competition.

“It has grown tremendously from the very beginning,” said Ron Kelsey, superintendent of farm crops at the fair, who was 24 when seed art first bloomed in 1965. This is Kelsey’s 75th year at the “Great Minnesota Get-Together.”

During those first years, most artists arranged seeds into natural scenes, like flowers and landscapes, until hairstylist Lillian Colton changed the game by introducing seed art portraiture. Her hyperrealistic mosaics of figures like Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway, and Barbra Streisand raised the bar for crop artists at the fair. 

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Lillian Colton, “Ernest Hemingway” (1970), timothy, poppy seed, grits, brome grass, birdsfoot trefoil

Today, artist Liz Schreiber sits where Colton once did at the demonstration table, meticulously placing tiny quinoa and flax seeds to create a bullfrog. Schreiber is the artist behind this year’s commemorative fair poster, an incredibly detailed and boldly designed amalgamation of iconography that Minnesota fairgoers hold dear. “It’s very meditative,” Schreiber told MPR News. “It’s kind of like doing a puzzle.” 

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Liz Schreiber demonstrates seed art at the Minnesota State Fair.

“A crop art picture can take dozens and, in many cases, hundreds of hours to complete,” said Joel Alter, a former political researcher and seed art newcomer who won a second premium ribbon this year. Many find that time passes quickly, as they enjoy the thrilling and addictive process. “Some people get started with it and they can’t stop,” said Kelsey.

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Joel Alter, “Jobs Ill-Suited to Seed Artists, #47″ (2023), onion skin, soybeans, millet, amaranth, rye, wheat, wild rice, poppyseeds, lentils, quinoa, Division: Senior Citizens Crop Art, Class 20 Senior Citizen, Winner of second premium ribbon

But why did this art form sprout in Minnesota? “I always say, maybe this has something to do with Minnesota’s long winters,” Kelsey explained.

Minnesotans have always had a lot of time on their hands indoors during those freezing months. Crop arrangement also stretches back to the early days of the fair in the 1850s, when farmers began showing off their wares for shiny ribbons. Many created aesthetically pleasing arrangements to impress judges and passersby. All of these factors mixed with strong folk traditions make for the perfect conditions to sow and reap a bounty of art.  

Seed art is defined by its accessibility: All you need is Elmer’s glue, some seeds, and something to say. Every submission is displayed, making for a radically democratic art show, and encouraging many to make a political stance.

“Thousands of people wait in long lines to see it every day,” said Alter. “A piece of crop art provides a platform for an artist — if they are so inclined — to make a political statement that can be seen by many people.” Some are state-specific, such as politician and artist Julie Blaha’s homage to the Democrats’ success during the “Minnesota Miracle 2.0.” Others deal with weighty, nationwide crises: One standout comes from Laura Melnick, a legal aid lawyer. Melnick’s “Thoughts and Prayers!” (2023) skewers the hypocrisy of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the style of a Maurice Sendak illustration, all through exemplary, precise craftsmanship. 

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Laura Melnick, “Thoughts and Prayers!” (2023), amaranth, birdsfoot trefoil, celosia, clover, columbine, dianthus, dill, grass, millet, poppy, Division: Natural Colors, Class 2 Advanced, Winner of first premium ribbon

While some sow seeds of discontent, others germinate hope. There were many proud statements of trans joy and pride, both in glued seeds and down the aisle. Queer couple Molly Ritchie and Annie Bulbulian Wells had a “71-second marriage” ceremony in the hallway around the corner, right next to the scarecrows and right under Ron Kelsey’s seed bag collection. Wells, who uses they/them pronouns, took up seed art recently and commemorated the ceremony in their work in the show. “With so many terrible things happening to trans people in recent years, I wanted to remind people that trans people love and are loved and that we bring joy into the world,” the artist said.

Seed artists have already packed up their alfalfa and mustard seeds this year, but it’s never too early to start planning your late-summer Minnesota vacation for 2024.

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