“I like to do some art every day,” says Sandra Fjerkenstad-Büdel. A glance around the flat she shares with her husband and two Boston Terriers confirms this: a sketch of a Boston Terrier covers their front door; mosaics of polished rocks adorn small patches of their entry-way sidewalk. Fjerkenstad-Büdel has a pen pal with whom she exchanges “art cards,” paintings the size of baseball trading cards. Says Fjerkenstad-Büdel: “A stamp, at 44 cents, is a steal.”
Fjerkenstad-Büdel, who lives in St. Paul, has been submitting her crop art entries to the Minnesota State Fair “Division of Farm Crops: Crop Art and Arrangements” [PDF] since 2000, when her portrait of Olga, a Boston Terrier, took a ribbon for third place. Crop (or seed) art is created by gluing seeds, stems, or panicles of grains to a board or other surface. To qualify for entry to the Minnesota State Fair, the seeds must be from crops grown in Minnesota as expressly defined in the Ag-Hort Bee premium book. Though “It’s not about winning,” according to Fjerkenstad-Büdel, over the years her submissions have been awarded 11 ribbons, including three blue first-place ribbons.
The late Lillian Coulton may be Minnesota’s most famous crop artist, but the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD is “Mecca for crop artists” according to Fjerkenstad-Büdel. Alan Carpenter’s Triptych, of Lawrence Welk, the World’s Only Corn Palace, and Myron Floren is among Fjerkenstad-Büdel’s favorites. “Fine work, great detail, and the subject is an homage to a great Midwestern subject. It’s not a joke, but it’s respectful and funny at the same time.”
Fjerkenstad-Büdel’s neighbors, David Steinlicht and his wife Dolores, both crop artists, inspired her to try her hand at the craft. Says Fjerkenstad-Büdel: “Anyone can do this. The materials are cheap and it’s not too elitist.” The crop art community is “very open and welcoming, not exclusive. A lot of real political people.”
Crop art is not without controversy, however: “Seeds can be racy.” Fjerkenstad-Büdel’s prize-winning “Sunbather” of a woman in a bikini received so many complaints the year it was displayed at the fair that it was taken down. “Banned at the fair!” she says. “That shows you the power of seeds. Cathy Camper had one [taken down], too. No bosoms!”
Also controversial is white rice. The crop art community debates whether white rice is a legitimate Minnesota crop. Says Fjerkenstad-Büdel: “But sometimes you need white.” She confesses that sometimes she struggles to stay within the rules, which are very rigid and not always in line with her artistic vision.
She also finds crop art is hard on the hands, and has begun to work with bigger seeds. “Corn is fun to work with; it’s very tactile. And soybeans line up easily.” Crop art requires a lot of sitting. Hunching over her board while working “until the wee hours the night before it’s due” has required at least one massage over the years. “But, when you turn them in in the morning, you feel elated.”
As far as advice to would-be artists, Fjerkenstad-Büdel suggests that, “Although there are a million things you can do and the ideas are endless, don’t start too ambitious. 11 x 14 is a good standard size. It’s easy to frame and easy to finish.”
Fjerkenstad-Büdel recommends solid wood as a base. “Glue will warp poster board. You need a lot of glue. Go Elmers. I tried to buy Menards glue, because it’s cheaper, but it’s too watery.”
She says “seeds have to be kept fresh, to keep the bugs away.” Some people keep them in the freezer, but says Fjerkenstad-Büdel: “It’s best to start fresh, because the colors fade.”
Also, “before you start putting seeds on, you should put hooks or a way of hanging on the back.”
She sketches her ideas on 8 ½ x 11 graph paper, then draws them freehand on her board. “Wild rice is good for outlining before you start filling in with seeds. It makes it look crisper, clearer.”
Finally, frame your art with a row or two of seeds: “They like some kind of finished element.”
She says: crop art “Brings you back to being a kid. It’s very soothing.”
In fact, Fjerkenstad-Büdel works to inspire the young artists who live in her neighborhood. A boy named Ryanne, 11, proudly showed me his crop art entry during one of my visits. He then raced outside to show us his new bike. At that moment, another kid from the neighborhood came by to borrow Fjerkenstad-Büdel’s tire pump, and to tell her about a Boston Terrier key chain she saw at the store. (Fjerkenstad-Büdel is very involved with Minnesota Boston Terrier Rescue.)
On another of my visits, three girls ranging in age from nine to 11 sat at Fjerkenstad-Büdel’s dining table while meticulously gluing seeds on boards. One piece of art featured an inspired pair of ballet slippers made of pinto beans, kidney beans, and orange lentils. On my next visit, I found the ballet slipper piece in the middle of a stack of half-finished crop art that Fjerkenstad-Büdel had on her hearth. The kids change their minds a lot; apparently, the ballet slipper artist found an even more exciting subject.
As for Fjerkenstad-Büdel, at the time of my last visit, a week and a half ago, she had two completed pieces and was sketching her third. You can start in February, but it’s hard to “get in the mood and feel inspired.” But, after a brief scare where she thought completed 2009 crop art entries were to be turned in a week earlier than the actual deadline of 4:30pm, Monday, August 24, 2009 and she stayed up late, hunched over her portrait of the late Bill Holm, she admitted: “The last minute isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
Update: Both of Fjerkenstad-Büdel’s 2009 crop art entries discussed in this story garnered ribbons: one for fifth premium and the other, a merit award (Bill Holm portrait). Ryanne’s and the ballet slipper artist’s entries were also awarded ribbons.