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Lillian Colton


Owatonna People's Press
Mpls. Star Tribune
Rochester Post- Bulletin
St. Paul Pioneer Press

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Owatonna, Minn. People's Press
March 22, 2007

Famed Owatonna crop artist dies at 95

Lillian Colton died Tuesday

Press managing editor

OWATONNA - Famed Owatonna crop artist Lillian Colton, whose work was displayed prominently at the Minnesota State Fair and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, died Tuesday at her home, her family announced.

She was 95.

Colton, who was also a long-time superintendent of the fine arts at the Steele County Free Fair, had gained a national and even international reputation for her work, which used parts of plants, including seeds, stems and other structures, to produce art.

She first entered her art work in competition at the Minnesota State Fair in 1965. In her second year of competition, she earned a second-place ribbon. In 1973, she won "Best of Show" for the fair and earned 12 such "Best of Show" awards from the state fair before retiring from competition in 1982.

Since that time, she worked for the state fair as a demonstrator of crop art.

"They put her on the payroll," said her son Jon Colton of Owatonna.

Last year, at the age of 94, Lillian Colton demonstrated her work every day at the state fair, her son said.

Her dedication to the state fair was legendary. She attended every year since she was 7 years old and never missed going going to the state fair, her son said. The only years that she did not attend was during World War I and at a time during the polio epidemic. Both years, the fair was cancelled. Her dedication to the the Minnesota State Fair earned her a lifetime membership to the fair.

Lillian Colton also had an equal dedication to the Steele County Free Fair. She has been a co-superintendent of the fine arts division since 1985.

"It's a major loss to the fair," said Elmer Reseland, Steele County Free Fair secretary. "She was quite a trooper. She showed up at everything."

Reseland said that Colton played an important role in building up the fine arts division of the fair.

"As she was got older, she was there," Reseland said. "She always did her part."

Colton's work gained her a following, which prompted her to be given a one-woman show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis.

"Art people from Minneapolis came down to visit her and play Scrabble," said Jon Colton. "They were offbeat, eccentric art folks from the city. She said that she was a simple farm girl."

Colton was born in 1911 in rural Martin County and never forgot her roots. She remained, her son said, "simple and humble" throughout her life.

At one point, when an exhibition of her work was being given in the Cities, art professor was expounding on the "social implications of crop art, especially for women," her son said, "and about the difference between craft vs. art."

His mother responded by saying, "I was just thinking I glue seeds," Jon Colton said.

He said that his mother really didn't get started as a crop artist until later in her life.

"She didn't have time for it when we were growing up," she said.

Her late start in her art echoed that of folk artist Anna Mary "Grandma" Moses, who did not start painting until she was in her 70s. Colton produced a portait of Grandma Moses which was included in a book about Moses.

Jon Colton said that his mother's favorite piece was a large portrait of Christ with intricate detail in the hair and beard.

"She also had a great one of Willie Nelson," he said. "That was a crowd favorite."

A book about Colton's life and work is currently be written.

©2007 copyright Owatonna People's Press

Owatonna People's Press
Mpls. Star Tribune
Rochester Post- Bulletin
St. Paul Pioneer Press

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Minneapolis, Minn. Star Tribune
March 22, 2007

The cream of Minnesota's crop artists dies

Lillian Colton was a virtuoso with seeds, creating realistic portraits that hung in the Horticulture Building at the State Fair. In her other role, she ran a beauty shop.

Star Tribune

Lillian Colton spent the better part of 40 years immortalizing the likes of Kirby Puckett, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rev. Billy Graham with wild rice, hay and timothy seeds glued to cardboard.

Colton, considered the Andy Warhol of seeds -- yes, she did a portrait of him, too -- died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at her home in Owatonna, Minn. She was 95.

"With her artistic skills she immediately made crop art into an elevated art form," said Colleen Sheehy, education director at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.

The intricate details of her work were apparent in her methods: She used a toothpick to pick up seeds, one by one, and glue them into place, said artist Jan Elftmann, her longtime friend.

"She was an amazing artist," Elftmann said. "And her work got better with age."She was special," said her son Jon Colton of Owatonna.

"And not because she was my mom. She was always positive and upbeat."

Her work was featured for decades in the horticulture building at the Minnesota State Fair, as recently as last year, and in exhibits in 2004 at the Owatonna Arts Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

She appeared on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," and talk show host Craig Kilborn once held a Colton seed portrait of himself up to the cameras.

For 18 years, Colton competed at the State Fair and was named grand champion of crop art about a dozen times. Fair organizers finally decided to make her a demonstrator, paying her to display about 50 pictures and show how it was done, said her daughter Linda Paulsen of Hackensack, Minn.

Born and raised on a farm near Sherburn, Minn., Colton always had a knack for art, creating tablecloths and quilts to show at the State Fair. She excelled at embroidery, painting and drawing, talents she drew upon for her crop art, Sheehy said.

When she wasn't creating crop art, Colton worked as a hair stylist. For 67 years she ran a beauty shop at her home in Owatonna called Cinderella Clip and Curl, her son said.

"She was a warm, wonderful person," said Silvan Durben, director of the Owatonna Arts Center. "I'm definitely a fan."

Colton taught classes at the Arts Center for kids and adults interested in learning about crop art, Durben said. She would show how to map a project and choose appropriate seeds for eyes and hair all the way down to different skin complexions, he said. Durben said that Colton categorized jars of seeds, detailing how and when to use each one.

In the past few years, Sheehy traveled periodically to Owatonna to study Colton's art and tape interviews for her book, "Seed Queen: Crop Arts and the Amazing Lillian Colton," to be published this summer by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

"She was just so much fun," Sheehy said. "She loved playing Scrabble. Whenever I went down for a research trip, we would play at least one game. She knew all the tricks and obscure words, and she usually won."

Besides her son Jon and daughter Linda, Colton is survived by son Jim Colton of Palo Alto, Calif., and daughter Terry Colton of Owatonna; a sister, Charlene Martens of Northfield, Minn.; four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Owatonna. Visitation will be held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Brick-Meger Funeral Home, Owatonna, and at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the church.

Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report. Kevin Behr is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.

©2007 copyright Minneapolis Star Tribune

Owatonna People's Press
Mpls. Star Tribune
Rochester Post- Bulletin
St. Paul Pioneer Press

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Rochester, Minn. Post-Bulletin
March 31, 2007

Columnist: GREG SELLNOW: I'm just sayin'

Lillian Colton, one of Minnesota's most beloved icons, died last week at the age of 95.

Name doesn't ring a bell? Well, how about this -- The Seed Art Lady?

Any regular attendee of the Minnesota State Fair probably encountered the Seed Art Lady sometime during the last 40 years.

From 1965 -- when she entered a portrait of a grouse and won second place -- until 2005, Lillian was a regular at the Great Minnesota Get-Together. That's where she helped popularize an art form that's a tribute to our state's agrarian roots.

Lillian created artistic portraits from seeds. Not just any seeds -- too easy. No, the seed-art high priestesses, or at least farmers' wives, who devised this creative form a couple hundred years ago decided that competition-worthy portraits must be fashioned entirely from crop seeds grown in Minnesota. That means no quinoa, or white rice or tobacco. And, please, no bull thistle, or purple loosestrife or leafy spurge, or any other weed. It must be a crop seed.

Lillian did portraits of everyone from Jesus Christ, Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra to Jesse Ventura, Albert Einstein and Willie Nelson.

Year after year Lillian won grand prizes at the State Fair, even after the competition heated up with dozens of entrants, and people were showing up in droves at the Horticulture Building to see their work. Lillian became so successful and so popular that after a while she stopped competing, and fair administrators hired her to give demonstrations, which did until she was 93.

I spent a couple of hours with Lillian at her home in Owatonna in April 2005. She was suffering from leg problems, so her son had moved her studio from the second floor to the kitchen table. There, she was working on her ninth portrait of the Owatonna National Farmers Bank building, designed by Louis Sullivan.

"I'm doing it for a lady who had one, and she gave it away to her brother," Lillian said. "I made her another one and she gave that away, too. This has got to be the last one for her."

I've profiled my share of noteworthy Minnesotans over the years, but Lillian's was among my most enjoyable celebrity interviews. I think that's because she never really cared about winning contests, or making gobs of money with her art (Lillian's portraits sold for $224-$325) or being famous.

And, make no mistake, she was famous. She appeared on the Rosie O'Donnell Show; Craig Kilborn discussed her portrait of him on his program; she was featured in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles; she was inducted into the Minnesota State Fair Hall of Fame; and in 2004 an exhibition of her work was put on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Still, I got the impression that Lillian didn't really consider seed art her identity. She ran her own hair styling business in Owatonna, Cinderall's Clip 'N Curl, for nearly four decades. And she and her husband Carroll, who died in 1978, raised five children.

"This is my hobby," she told me that warm spring day two years ago. "I started doing it to relax after work."

Truth is, there are lots of people like Lillian among us with families and careers they're proud of. And a lot of them have interesting hobbies. It's just that fame has been too picky to find them yet.

©2007 copyright Rochester Post-Bulletin

Owatonna People's Press
Mpls. Star Tribune
Rochester Post- Bulletin
St. Paul Pioneer Press

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St. Paul, Minn. Pioneer Press, TwinCities.com
March 23, 2007


The Grande Dame of State Fair Crop Art

Her steady hands and nimble fingers created award-wining works and brought her fame

Pioneer Press

Few at the Minnesota State Fair could compete with "seed queen" Lillian Colton, and it was getting to be a problem.

"She had basically won everything. Once she attained her level of expertise, there wasn't anybody that could compete. ... Quite frankly, a lot of people didn't want to compete against her," said Steve Pooch, deputy general manager of the State Fair.

That was a quarter-century ago, after Colton had won a dozen of the Fair's "Best of Show" awards for the "crop art" she made famous. Colton continued to use her nimble fingers -- but no eyeglasses -- to sort and glue the tiny seeds into intricate portraits and landscapes until Tuesday, when she died of respiratory failure at her Owatonna, Minn., home. She was 95.

In the interim, Colton was contracted by the State Fair to simply demonstrate her technique, rather than compete against newcomers she had bested time and again.

"That was the easy way to do it," Pooch said.

So as she sat in front of a wall weighted with her awards and artwork, she chatted away while meticulously placing one tiny seed on a canvas, then the next, then the next. Some, like the speck-size timothy hay seed, had to be applied en masse with a spoon.

Beside her on a table sat a simple, printed sign: "Yes, it takes patience. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it's relaxing."

Colton's expertise turned the Minnesota State Fair into the premier crop art competition: Many state fairs have categories that allow the medium, but Minnesota was the only one Colton could find that had a competition limited solely to crop art.

It's a medium some art school students consider quaint or old-fashioned, said Colleen Sheehy, director of education for the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.

"But seeds are like any other medium: They have color, shape, texture, pattern," Sheehy said. "There's just this quality of having to do work with your fingertips, with touch."

Colton first entered the State Fair's crop art competition in 1966 -- its second year -- with a mosaic of a grouse. She won second place. Her depictions of trees and animals became more complex, and soon Colton began submitting entries into each of the competition's eight categories.

But Colton, Sheehy said, took the medium to the next level: creating portraits for the first time anyone can remember. (Her first Best of Show win, in 1974, was a seed mosaic of Barbra Streisand.)

"She was kind of the heart of the Midwest," said Sheehy, who has finished writing a book about Colton to be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. "I couldn't get an accurate chronology of her ribbons -- she just won so many times."

Sometimes her dedication to the craft was a bit scary, said daughter Linda Paulsen: Like the time Colton insisted on going to the Fair with an injured knee and treated it with nothing but a SnoCone pressed to her skin. She later had to be taken to the hospital.

Another time, Paulsen remembers coming to her mother's door on Fair day to find the woman in a state of blissful exhaustion.

"Oh, I was up all night gluing seeds. My eyes are rolling in my head," Colton told her. Her mosaics lay in the oven for some last-minute drying.

Born in 1911 on a southern Minnesota farm outside Sherburn, in Martin County, Colton began attending State Fairs at the age of 7. She began entering crafts and crops at 9.

After graduating from Sherburn High School, she came to Minneapolis to attend the Jarvaise DeGuiles Academy of Beauty Culture. She eventually returned to the biggest city in Martin County, Fairmont, where she worked as a beautician in a local department store and later married a department store display painter.

In 1936, the couple moved to Owatonna. Colton started a beauty salon, the Cinderella Clip and Curl on Cedar Street, where she could indulge her gregarious nature. Her husband started an appliance store next door.

"Most people think the information explosion started with the Internet. It started when she opened her shop," said son Jim Colton. "You could hear constant comments about what was going on around town. She knew everything."

Lillian Colton moved the salon into her home once her family -- which now included five children -- began to grow. She retired as a beautician about a decade ago.

But what she learned in her salon developed her skills as an artist, Sheehy said.

"The ability to work with hair and make it into certain shapes also translated into working with pine needles and cornhusks," Sheehy said.

Colton kept with crop art, Sheehy said, because it allowed her to integrate all her artistic talents, which also included oil painting and embroidery. Those skills, unlike crop art, she had practiced since she was a girl.

Plus, sorting seeds was a soothing enterprise: Neighbors and friends would often bring the debris of their garden to Colton, which she would then sort out into different piles on the kitchen table.

To Colton, the medium was the most natural thing in the world. Sheehy said: "She didn't see it as something funny or odd, because she grew up on a farm. It was what she was used to working with."

Colton stepped down from the State Fair competitions in 1982, but remained at her demonstration table in the Agriculture-Horticulture Building, surrounded by a shifting audience of thousands of fairgoers, until just last year.

In 2004, she became the second woman to be inducted into the Minnesota State Fair Hall of Fame. That same year, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts featured Colton's works in a one-woman show titled "Lillian's Vision."

She is survived by her sons Jon and Jim; daughters Linda Paulsen and Terry Colton; and four grandchildren.

Services for Colton will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Owatonna.

©2007 copyright St. Paul Pioneer Press

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