It’s August and time for St. Anthony Park resident Teresa Anderson to go to seed again. It’s something she does quite well, regularly winning awards for her efforts.
Crop art is Anderson’s chosen pursuit and her wry sense of humor and excellent fine motor skills (possibly honed by her professional background in dentistry) make her a formidable competitor in one of the more esoteric events at the Minnesota State Fair.
Like butter sculpture and Machinery Hill, crop art—that curious blend of precision technique, cartoon graphics and horticultural boosterism—is one of those distinctive attractions that give the State Fair its special place in the affections of true Minnesotans. Confined to an out-of-the-way corner of the Agriculture Horticulture Building, crop art will never challenge the big-league status of the heavy-hitters over in the Creative Activities Building or the Fine Arts Center. Even devotees like Anderson are unsure if it’s really an art form.
“It’s very tedious,” she admits. “Not much fun to do. … Also, it’s a hundred times harder to do it in seeds [than paint.]”
Anderson can’t sell her work for any sum that would begin to offer appropriate compensation for the hours of labor involved, and she doesn’t even have the satisfaction of knowing that her work will last for the ages. Without distracting layers of heavy, shiny shellac, her prize-winning creations can quickly succumb to crop blight.
Yet every year, months before the fair begins, Anderson and a small band of fellow enthusiasts begin visiting seed stores, assembling their stock and planning the finicky process of transforming millet, lentils, wheat and other kernels into recognizable portraits of everyone from Abe Lincoln to Colonel Sanders. In fact, there is probably no object so inappropriate that it hasn’t at one time or another been eyed speculatively by a seedsmith in search of a subject. Years ago one competitor even reproduced Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in rolled oats and Cream of Wheat (but not, paradoxically, sunflower seeds). Anderson’s first entry in the seedy sweepstakes came a decade ago.
“That first year I did a cute little bird,” she says. That would be the last time anyone referred to her work as cute. Nowadays, the adjectives are more likely to be “ironic” or “cheeky.” And those are from the people who agree with her.
Anderson has made her mark by bringing political commentary to the world of crop art, and she is not one to use a stiletto when a garden shovel will do the job. In 2007, she portrayed then Vice President Dick Cheney in tasteful neutral tones of barley, rice and millet with tendrils growing out of his head labeled “Corruption,” “Torture” and “Repression.” The work was titled “Vice—The Root of Evil.” The political message of her winning 2008 entry—exhibited during the Republican National Convention based that year in St. Paul—can be inferred from its caption: “Cleaning Up After the Elephants Is the Dirtiest Job in the Circus.”
Word of her creations has reached the Internet, and the reaction is not always positive. She reports with high glee that one especially angry conservative blogger wrote, “Teresa Anderson sounds like a sad, angry person. I’d hate to have Christmas dinner with her.”
For the record, Anderson wants it to be known that she is neither sad nor angry. A health consultant who enjoys her family and a variety of outside interests, she says, “I have plenty of more important and positive things in my life [than making painstaking portraits of Republicans in seeds].” But she’s unapologetic about her politics. Always liberal.
“For some reason,” she adds, “there is no conservative crop art.” She admits frankly that she misses George W. Bush “because he was so easy to do in crop art,” but in recent years her focus has turned from political to social issues.
Last year’s piece took dead aim at the Marriage Amendment, the ballot issue that would have outlawed gay marriage had it passed in November 2012. Anderson’s “Wedding Cake” was constructed of fine white seeds painstakingly glued to inverted cake pans. Conventional bride and groom figurines are perched on top under a banner that reads “Defending Marriage Sanctity since Henry VIII,” while around the sides of the cake, Anderson has inscribed in flowing seed script the names of a rogue’s gallery of prominent abusers of their marital vows from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump. The witty “Wedding Cake” was singled out for favorable mention last year on the online news site Huffington Post, and one of Anderson’s entries this year continues the theme.
She celebrates the legalization of same-sex marriage by the Minnesota Legislature this spring with a slice of wedding cake rendered in rainbow-colored seeds. The caption reads “Let them eat cake.”
Is Anderson mellowing? Her other entry this year is an uncharacteristically straightforward salute to former Pres. George H.W. Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” quote. “It’s a little wacky for me,” says Anderson, “because it’s positive.”
She credits her family and friends with helping her think up the clever slogans that distinguish her entries. But that’s the extent of their involvement in what they consider her somewhat eccentric interest.
“I have two adult children who have tried seed art—once—and say ‘never again,’ ” she reports.
After all these years as a competitor, Anderson does have a couple of artistic secrets to share with aspiring seedsters: Always underpaint the backdrop in the same color as the seeds if you don’t want embarrassing bits of white to show through.
“Lentils are round and flat,” she explains. “They are good for large expanses, but they will leave tiny spaces in between. So you need to underpaint.”
And don’t forget to outline for crisp definition of your subject matter. “Crown vetch seeds are rod-shaped, very good for outlining.”
Asked what it takes to become a master crop artist, Anderson is characteristically modest. “You need fine-motor skills, but basically it takes patience.”
Given the small number of crop artists and the large number of sub-categories in which they compete, she explains, “Unless you do something obscene, you’ll get your piece [displayed]. It’s a … humorous way to put your thoughts out there to half-a-million fairgoers.”