The cream of the crop art

SW artists put a new spin on an old art form

Linda Koutsky's artistic palette is made up of canola seeds, lentils, millet, split peas and Cream of Wheat. The Linden Hills crop artist is currently honing her inspiration and her kernels for the Minnesota State Fair crop art competition later this month. Koutsky is going for her fourth consecutive blue ribbon -- if she gets it, she'll be in the crop art big league, an "advanced amateur," she said with a smile.

Koutsky hosts crop art parties at her Vincent Avenue South home. Up to 15 people show up with their ideas, boards and assorted legumes. She tends not to invite neophytes, she said. These seeders take their art seriously and have little time for mentoring.

Crop artists begin by drawing images on wooden boards. They lay glue between the lines and then sprinkle on seeds purchased from local food co-ops.

"With crop art you are basically working on a palette that is light brown to dark brown," Koutsky said. "There are things to use for color like sorghum for greens and kidney beans for red." Some people dye their seeds for better color, she said, but as a purist, she would never consider it.

Koutsky first saw crop art 14 years ago at the State Fair. She had long been fascinated with grain elevators and immediately knew she had to do a cubist crop art rendition of one. Now she's completed eight -- including a replica of the Washburn-Crosby Elevator recently torn down downtown by the Mississippi River.

As her expertise grows, she said, she focuses more on the smaller grains like millet and canola. The finer grains allow greater precision, enabling her to better capture line and shadow in her images. (As for those components that roll off the board, Koutsky recommends Oreck vacuum cleaners.)

Learning the rules

Kingfield resident Ken Avidor has been doing crop art for four years. Last year, a hungry rodent ate his portrait of a Northern Pike, which had been stored temporarily in his basement. Now the image exists only in cyberspace at Avidor has learned that a little varnish will protect his work from mice and egg-laying moths whose emerging weevils apparently have no problem eating art.

"Fine art had rules in the 19th century, but with the advent of the modernist movement it no longer does," Avidor said. But, at least in competitions, there are plenty of crop art rules.

For the State Fair, all seeds used must be native to Minnesota. Artists are allowed to use up to 10 percent processed grain in the piece, like the Cream of Wheat Koutsky uses for its white color. All submissions must include a legend of all the seeds used in the piece on a 3-by-5-inch card.

Compliance with these rules accounts for 15 percent of the final score. Artistic merit -- originality, distinctiveness, quality, composition and the blending of textures -- accounts for 50 percent, and craftsmanship accounts for the 35 percent. A great idea not well executed is demoted if any of the board shows or the seeds are not lined up in an appropriate way. Glue gobs aren't good either.

The crop art coven

While the art form may have begun as a winter pastime for farmers, most of the people in Koutsky's crop art coven live and work in the metro area. Many are professional illustrators and graphic designers with such institutions as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and The Science Museum of Minnesota.

Koutsky herself is a graphic artist and book designer for Coffee House Press in Downtown. She also writes and illustrates a weekly column, "The Lunchtime Tourist," for Skyway News.

Avidor is an illustrator of the cartoon "Roadkill Bill," an urban squirrel who hates cars, and the serialized graphic novel "Gondwanaland," where radical librarians save the world. Both appear in the local alternative weekly, Pulse of the Twin Cities.

Avidor's daughter, Alice Avidor, a sixth-grader at Ramsey International Fine Arts School, 1 W. 49th St., has been doing crop art for three years. Alice said she does it because it's fun, but also because it's also challenging, hard work. She uses toothpicks to shove seeds into their proper place. Elmer's is her glue of choice because it's cheap, it isn't toxic or smelly, and it dries clear. A typical piece takes her a week.

Pushing the limits

Recently, according to Avidor, the hipsters have taken over. The new generation has foregone bucolic images of fish and fowl for portraits of pop stars (like Jackie Chan), political posters and ironic pieces. The State Fair judges do not always appreciate such work.

Last year, one artist did Governor Jesse Ventura and Terry, his wife, (in grain) as the characters in Grant Wood's classic "American Gothic."

"The judges didn't get it," Avidor said. "I entered a 'Roadkill Bill' crop art poster in the competition, they didn't get that either."

Koutsky suggested that the next wave may also expand their materials, including genetically engineered seeds and maybe even dabbling in sprouting crop art. She speculated that a cross between crop art and the Chia Pet may be waiting in wings.

As for her own crop art, Koutsky's State Fair entry this year is a necklace of drilled soybeans and silver links. At the end of the chain hangs a silver pendent featuring, of course, an abstract crop art design in its center.

Is it an art or a craft? According to Koutsky, it's both. "I look at some of my pieces and it's the best artwork I've ever made. And then the are the other ones that I don't consider art, but I do consider them fine crafts."

See the crop art exhibit Aug. 21-Sept. 1 at the Ag-Hort-Bee building at the Minnesota State Fair, 1265 Snelling Av. N., St. Paul. The exhibit is free with Fair entry, $8 for adults (13-64), $7 for seniors (65 up) and kids (5-12), and free for children under 5. (On Thursday, Aug. 21, entry is $1-$2 off.)

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Anyone can enter crop art for the competition. Registration is due Aug. 8 and can be completed online through links. Artwork is due Aug. 18.