Crop art is macaroni art minus the processing. Instead of pasta glued to wood boards, the designs in this folk art tradition are made with whole seeds and grains—kernels of corn, pieces of wheat, poppy seeds and more. During the late summer in the Midwest, when state fair season is in full swing, such homespun works are displayed in the air-conditioned halls on fairgrounds around the region. And unlike its traditionally non-political art companion, the butter sculpture, it doesn’t take a radical animal rights group to make it a political medium.
Except this year, at the Minnesota State Fair, journalist David Brauer and Jesse Marx, of Minneapolis’s City Pages, say there’s a dearth of politicized images at the fair. Marx opens his story, “Controversial crop art at the Minnesota State Fair: Who decides what’s OK to display?” with a tweet from Brauer, who observed, “BREAKING: It appears partisan #cropart has been completely excised from #mnfair.” By which he apparently meant that there were few works of a partisan persuasion on display this year.
What follows is a story that, in a small-bore manner, accounts for the cyclical nature of state fairs and politics, how the rides and fried-food trucks and livestock stalls serve as backdrops for the national political narrative in general and mid-term election years, becoming more benign in years when the fair isn’t a campaign stop. According to Ron Kelsey, who curates the crop art display, the tone of the works he selects reflects the campaign cycle: “Asked why there aren’t more political messages at this year’s fair,” Marx writes, “he replies simply, ‘It’s not a big election year.’ ”
Expect Marx cites two potentially divisive works that, ironically, were made by a husband and wife, the political nature of one seeming to rather dramatically cut against the other. Lauren Melnick, who won the top prize for crop art this year, turned the titular spider of Charlotte’s Web into Charlton, arming the arachnid with an array of firearms that are trained on Wilbur and friends. The words “From my cold, dead legs” hover over Wilbur’s head. That’s Charlton as in Charlton Heston.
And her husband’s piece? Mark Dahlager re-created the hooded figure of Trayvon Martin in amaranth, clover and poppy seeds.
Melnick, however, doesn’t see the apparently opposing works in political terms. She tells City Pages that “Gun control isn’t necessarily a partisan issue.”