ST. PAUL - One of the first things you notice in Darlene Thorud's Bloomington, Minn., home is the crop art. Her award-winning Minnesota State Fair pieces are hanging in rooms and hallways throughout her house. From a detailed Viking ship in the living room to an Irish Blessing spelled out in seeds near the kitchen, Thorud's love of crop art is undeniable.
This year marks Thorud's 50th year competing in one of the Minnesota State Fair's most unusual offerings - the annual crop art competition, where art and agriculture collide.
"I belonged to a garden club, and one of the ladies had heard of crop art and entered it that first year," said Thorud, who has won more than 130 blue ribbons for her crop art. "She told me I should try it. So I did. I think it was the second year that it even existed that I started entering. I made a fish out of cracked corn on blue cloth."
"Back when I started, we didn't have air conditioning and I had little kids," continued Thorud, 77, who entered 11 pieces in this year's competition. "It was just nice to go down to the basement where it was cool and work on this. It was a retreat to solitude. It was also a money-maker. I was a stay-at-home mom, so I didn't have a job. First prize was $25 - that was a lot of money back then."
This year, the fair is celebrating 50 years of crop art, which started in 1965, with a party at the Agriculture Horticulture Building at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. (This is the 51st year people could enter the competition.)
There also will be a puppet performance - "The Seed Queen: The Handmade Legacy of Lillian Colton" - celebrating the life and legacy of Colton, a State Fair Hall of Fame crop artist. The puppet show will be performed three times daily in the crop art area.
"As we understand it, we are the only state fair in the United States that has a competition in seed art," said Ron Kelsey, who for the past 15 years has been superintendent of the fair's farm crops area, which includes overseeing the crop art competition.
"Other state fairs have come to try and learn about and get it started, but they haven't been successful as far as we know.
"I always say its success in Minnesota has something to do with our long winters," said Kelsey, who lives in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Lamberton. "I don't know exactly why. We are a state with a lot of farm crops. I really believe Lillian Colton herself had a lot to do with the promotion of it and getting it started."
CROP ART DYNASTY
Linda Paulsen comes from deep crop art roots. She's the daughter of Colton, who died in 2007. Paulsen has continued the crop art tradition with 2015 marking her 46th year entering the competition. Over the years she's won countless ribbons, including Best of Show 10 times. Just like her mother once did, Paulsen demonstrates crop art during the fair.
"I saw it on TV the very first year they had it - that was actually 1965," said Paulsen, who lives in Hackensack. "And I told my mother about it. I didn't enter until two years later."
"I actually didn't care to try it at first, but my mother talked me into it. She knew I would enjoy it. The first picture I made was small and simple - a hill with a tree and some cows in the distance. I really enjoyed it, and I even won a prize, so I got hooked."
Paulsen, 71, said she used to study her mom's work and even inherited some of her seeds. While Paulsen has been successful in competition, she admits it's hard to live up to Colton's crop art legacy.
"She always did such good work and she was very fast at doing them," Paulsen said.
Also like her mother, Paulsen has a knack for creating likenesses of everyone from Taylor Swift to Lucille Ball to Tiger Woods. This year she's taking a break from portraits because of a bad back ("it's a lot of looking down"), but is entering a village scene.
"I find portraits challenging," Paulsen said. "My mother did so well at portraits. I used to be a hairstylist, so I like doing the hair. Taylor Swift I wanted to do because I was intrigued by her hair. I had saved pictures of her for a number of years and by the time I got around to doing her, she had changed her hairstyle."
The biggest lesson she's learned from her mother? Keep an open mind.
"Keep looking for ideas all the time," Paulsen said. "And consider many different things like pictures from catalogs or magazines. Once you start thinking that way, pretty soon you'll see everything in seeds.'
NO WEED SEEDS
There are many rules and categories in crop art, but the main thing is people must use seeds from crops that can be grown in Minnesota. No weed seeds allowed
"Everybody has to follow the rules and regulations," noted Kelsey, who said there were 153 entries this year. That's 40 more than last year, and Kelsey said the quality of this year's exhibit is unbelievably good.
A lot of folks get docked points for using white rice, he said. But wild rice is allowed. Corn works well if you need a larger seed, and if you're looking for something small many turn to the Timothy seed.
Some are dyed, some natural. Some seeds are turned into something fashionable and entered into the "wearable" crop art category.
There have been crop art winners from across the country - and even the world.
"We do have an out-of-state class for what we call the 'unfortunate people,' " laughed Kelsey, 75, who grew up on a farm near Lewisville, Minn., and has been coming to the fair since he was 7. "About four years ago, the champion in that crop art category was from Africa. He had gone to his embassy and asked where he could compete and they said Minnesota was the only place they knew of, so he sent us his seed art."
During his time running the crop art exhibition, Kelsey has run into a few controversies. The one he most vividly recalls happened about 10 years ago.
"I had to take it off display - it was made of marijuana seeds," he said. "Of course, there was no medical marijuana in Minnesota at the time, so it was harvested and considered a weed. There was quite a bit of controversy over that."
Now with medical marijuana legal in the state, Kelsey needs to figure out whether marijuana seeds will be allowed in competition.
"This kind of thing always takes some thought," Kelsey said. "If someone did bring a piece in with marijuana seeds, they would have to prove to me where they got it. They would have to prove they got it from an approved medical marijuana grower and then it would probably have to be allowable by the crop art rules."
Kelsey notes people aren't afraid to get political with their crop art, particularly during election years. Politicians are often crop art subjects, but so are things happening nationally. He said pieces supporting gay marriage and a portrait of teenager Trayvon Martin were entered in 2012, the year Martin was killed in Florida. Things can get heavy when it comes to crop art.
"Yeah, it does," Kelsey agreed. "We've had people from the opposite political parties talk to us, saying it shouldn't be done. With the gay rights and same-sex marriage, those kinds of things came in. It's people expressing themselves about their beliefs. They're often shown in crop art."
Diane Gorney has been one of the crop art judges for eight years. She's examined hundreds of entries, looking for a variety of things from composition to creativity.
"I like things that have humor in them," said Gorney, who lives in Minneapolis. "Things that are attractive for whatever reason. Sometimes it's a very pristine bouquet of flowers all done in seeds. It doesn't really matter. I don't go by people or objects or color - it's just whatever grabs me. All of us who judge together - we know each other pretty well now - we know what appeals to one might not appeal to another so then we have to discuss it at length. But not too long because we have a lot to do."
'I MAY DO IT UNTIL I'M 80'
As she sits at her dining room table next to her husband, Dick, Thorud reflects on the hundreds of ribbons she's won and the fact she'll be recognized Monday with a plaque awarded to individuals with 50 years of State Fair participation. She's extremely modest when asked how she feels about the honor.
"That's fine," she smiled. "I'll probably give it to him," she said looking over at her husband. "He's the one who's been the driving force for me to keep going for 50 years."
"I think she has a real knack for it," said Dick, proudly noting in 2002 his wife won the crop art competition in every category she entered including the Best of Show and Sweepstakes awards.
"Next year will be optional," she laughed. "If I don't feel like doing it, I won't. But I may continue if I feel like it. I may do it until I'm 80."
Crop Art Exhibition
Where: Agriculture Horticulture Building, Minnesota State Fair, 1265 Snelling Ave. N., St. Paul
When: Throughout the run of the Fair
Cost: Free with fair admission
Info: mnstatefair.org or 651-288-4400