I would like to introduce you to Mrs. Lillian Colton of Owatoona, Minnesota. Lillian is 94 years of age, the widow of Carroll August Colton. They had five children, four of whom are still living.
The photo of Abraham Lincoln, which appears in this same issue of the newsletter, is of a 16" x 20" Crop Art sculpture that won Lillian a blue ribbon for “Best of Show” at the 1973 Minnesota State Fair. She first entered in the Crop Art competition at the State Fair in 1965 although she had entered other competitions from the time she was seven years old. The second year she entered this competition she took home a second-place ribbon for her picture of a Grouse. Since then she has won 12 out of 14 best-of-show awards before retiring in 1982 and since then offers her work as a demonstrator only at the State Fair.
For those of us not familiar with Crop Art, and the keys involved in competition, it is to use parts of plants (including seeds, stems, or other structures) that can be grown in the state of Minnesota. Oats, pinto beans, sunflowers and wild rice are acceptable, but plants grown only in other parts of the world and weed seeds from anywhere are not qualified for use.
Lillian starts after using a jigsaw to cut a shape out of wood, i.e. a chicken, duck, etc., then she papier-maches it to get the right fullness before covering it with seeds. Mosaics are an extension of the other artwork she has always enjoyed: sketches, pastels, watercolor and oil painting. She embroiders, too, which isn’t so far removed from seed art - taking small stitches, or seeds, to piece together a whole.
Seed Art Picture of Abraham Lincoln
which won an award at the Minnesota State Far
In doing seed art portraits, seeds are set in place one at a time with a toothpick; all that is needed is a steady hand! The challenge of creating a beard, hair and fur (for animal pictures) is her favorite part of the work, blending the texture and coloring. That is when the storage jars of wild rice, brome grass and salsify seeds come out. Salsify is particularly useful for hair, she says, because some of the seeds are already curved which helps her create the hair in a portrait. Seeds are mostly shades of brown, gray and cream. Most are used in their natural color, though she tints some when she needs something brighter, such as a red bead of color for a rooster.
Elmer’s glue is her sticky stuff of choice and she stocks up on 2 gallons at a time when she needs to buy it. It seems her family buys her glue for Christmas and at her birthday as a present!
She keeps well stocked with seeds. Extra supplies come from farmers’ seed stores or from roadsides, where she gets brome grass, a favorite. Some are donated by friends, neighbors and former customers at her beauty shop.
She then sprays her completed works with a clear acrylic or varnish to keep the seeds in place, then mounts them on a background, which is framed. Her seed art lasts. Original portraits are still intact after more than three decades. They were put to a test when displayed outdoors one time and knocked down by a gust of wind. “Grandma Moses lost a button, the frames got dented, but all the seeds stuck,” Lillian Colton said.
She makes original portraits from photographs. “I make a lot for weddings; everyone seems to like it,” she said. Each portrait takes about three days to piece together; prices run from $175 to $250 each. Three-dimensional sculptures are also part of her repertoire.
She saves seeds, lots and lots of seeds! She has a closet with shelves to the ceiling filled with more than 500 jars of seeds. “I call it my granary” she says with a laugh!
Lillian still doesn’t need glasses as she places first one seed, then another and another in position. “You need a lot of patience and stick-to-it-ness, but it grows on you even if you think it is time-consuming at first.”
Of course, this isn’t all that Lillian has done. Her husband was a farmer and for 67 years she was a beautician with her own beauty shop in town. Her children are grown and she has been a widow for more than 20 years. Now she is retired and has a studio in her home where she works 20 or 25 hours a week on seed art mosaics orders. Three walls of her studio are full of pictures of work she has completed, i.e. Rosie O’Donnell, Shirley Temple, Prince, Governor Jesse Ventura, Amelia Earhart, Willie Nelson, Jesus, Ray Stevens, a lighthouse scene and of course assorted animals. Her characters have an eerie 3-D quality created by their flat, painted eyes surrounded by a carefully placed layer of seeds and more paint.
Lillian’s work is on display each year at the Minnesota State Fair, in the Agriculture-Horticulture building. She is usually there also, sitting at a vinyl-covered demonstration table, give or take a break now and then. When demonstrating she works on less complex forms, “This way I can talk and the glue won’t get hard” she said.
I have to admit to having been seed art illiterate and not knowing Lillian Colton, nor having heard of Owatoona, Minnesota. Now I am much better informed about all of them. If you ever get the chance to go to the Minnesota State Fair, and are lucky enough to meet Lillian Colton, tell her Ed Colton says”hello” and thanks for the education!
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