I judged “Harvest Art” at the State Fair

Everyone knows that the Agricultural Horticulture building at the State Fair is, like me, literally that whore. Walk through the beautiful architecture of its entrance and everything from seed bags to cornwalls, scarecrows to flowers are waiting inside. (The only fair building I love more than this is Fine Art, because they have the best bathrooms.) The building celebrates its 75th year this fair season, and the overseer and king of all things corn, Mr. Ron Kelsey of Lamberton, Minnesota, invited me to judge crop art.

If you’re thinking, “Um, but why YOU?”—First of all, that’s rude. Second, Ron knows me through his son Damon and knows that I have an obsession with the fair and, as an artist and crafter myself, I would be honored to judge. Ron Kelsey is a man who lives and breathes corn, and the corn on the cob tattooed on his forearm tells you everything you need to know about him. He’s been to the fair every year since he was 7, except when there was no fair in 2020. (Remember? ‘Cause the pandemic we’re still in?)

Kelsey has over 1,000 seed bags in his personal collection, the largest in Minnesota, and several hundred are on display in the building. He’s only a few years older than the building he manages on the fairgrounds, and he and his crew move like a well-oiled machine. It’s a big family affair – his wife, sister, son, brother-in-law were all there helping.

I was one of only five judges. We were all different ages and genders and with different specialties. For example, Roger Wippler is a professional seed identifier who works with crop research from U of M, and he let us know if the seeds were used correctly or not. I was the youngest and only black (I was told that blacks rarely served as judges) and I was replacing a former judge who passed away recently – I don’t think adding new blood is something they do very often. I have a feeling I’m the first black woman with 613 colored hair to judge the art of cultures and ask to be carved in butter just for that. But I leave!

We were told to judge based on characteristics such as originality, display and neatness, and there are multiple categories, including natural, painted and painted, special occasions, worn art and a large entryway table for children. I wish I had given them merit badges, but we only had so much to spare. I quickly learned that in many cases, it wasn’t the art itself or the use of the seeds that was the main focus, but the message.

Since almost anything and everything that follows the rules goes on the judging table and also on the display wall, it’s safe to say that many artists just want to make sure that the hundreds of thousands of people who travel through the harvest art section will be forced to get their message. And why not? How many times can you say that you all but got a few conservatives from Minnesota to look at your pro-abortion womb art? This is not something that person would go out and see for themselves, but you did, because this is the Minnesota State Fair’s dirty crop art contest, and you’re going to learn about it today.

Kelsey confirmed that every year, emails come in complaining about the strange crop art that has appeared. He simply thanks them for their feedback and keeps it moving. You can’t please everyone and he understands that he can’t silence people about their art – that’s not his place. This is a space for everyone to have an opinion, even one you don’t like. That said, if you’re visiting and see a piece of art you want for yourself? Ask the staff for an artist contact and if the artist is interested in selling, they will contact you directly.

As a pop culture encyclopedia, I was able to help select winners based not only on the time and effort they put into their art, but also on the originality of their work and the context of their art—as much as outside box, the more diversity the better. I could tell my fellow judges if we were watching a tribute to a Star Trek legend, a popular meme, or an obscure reference can only be deciphered by people with a certain skill set. (Looking at you, winking tom cat whose message says ACAB.) After I mentioned the references, others could also see the art in a different light. I could immediately recognize my contribution to the judgment and why I needed to be there to reclaim a space that maybe wasn’t there for me 75, 50 or even 25 years ago.

Harvest art isn’t just native to Minnesota, of course, but we do it bigger and better than anyone else. (Source: me.) It was a great honor to judge this year, and I really hope to be back next year. Here are some best practices if you’re considering entering in the future:

  1. The more subversive your art, the better. Push the envelope, but no hate speech or anything offensive, of course. Don’t be a dirty weirdo. Be as original as possible – even the frame can be considered.
  1. Traditional shapes not your thing? There are categories for those that don’t fit into the standard framework. Costume art, which included a crown and roller skates this year, was a standout, and that category could really use a ton more entries.
  1. Follow all the rules so that your art sets the stage for judging and hanging. Remember: All featured art makes it onto the wall to be seen, regardless of whether you get a ribbon or not.
  1. Encourage your children to participate. It’s fun and would definitely make a cool memory.

All photos by GIgi Berry.

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