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South Dakota’s Corn Palace: Where fine art begets folk art
By Susan Emerson Nutter

MITCHELL, S.D. — There is no denying folk art comes in all shapes and sizes. Possibly one of the largest examples of uniquely American folk art can be seen in Mitchell, S.D. covering the façade and decorating the interior of the Corn Palace.

Murals drawn by famous artists and then brought to life via ears of dry corn make the Corn Palace a popular destination for those fascinated with the ingenuity of the artistrsquo;s creativity and the workers who make these images a reality. Though there have been several Corn Palaces through the years, all have been within Mitchellrsquo;s downtown, and each continues to draw crowds.

The first Mitchell Corn Palace was built in 1892 – three years after South Dakota became a state. The town of Mitchell was only 12 years old, and its leaders wanted the city to grow. At the time, there was a Grain Palace in Plankiton, S.D., which helped bring people to that city.

Souix City, S.D. was in the midst of creating its own corn palace, but the project went bankrupt. Thatrsquo;s when several of Mitchellrsquo;s town leaders saw an opportunity.

Despite Souix Cityrsquo;s failed attempt, the citizens of Mitchell believed they could build a corn palace and were eager to see if it would also bring people to their town. By canvassing the city asking people for donations, residents of Mitchell raised more than $3,000 in one day. Even more impressive, once the cash was in hand, the Mitchell Corn Palace was built in less than 60 days.

The farmers of the area displayed their agricultural bounty on the buildingrsquo;s façade that first year to showcase the fertility of the regionrsquo;s soil. It was a general, albeit incorrect, assumption outside of this area that crops couldnrsquo;t grow in South Dakota. The farmers of Mitchell begged to differ, and they used the Corn Palace to drive the point home.

Not to be outdone, the ladies of the region set about decorating the interior of the Corn Palace in a like manner, and when the Palace opened to the public in 1892, it was a grand success. A festival celebrating this opening, complete with musical acts like John Philip Sousarsquo;s marching band playing three shows daily, helped the town to recoup its initial investment of $3,000 that first year.

After this first event, it was obvious the Corn Palace, though a huge success, was in fact too small. Another larger version was built in 1905, and then a third even larger, more permanent Corn Palace was finished in 1921. This final version sits on Main Street, and each year the façade with its domed roof and turrets is decorated with colorful murals created completely from corn.

And this is where the folk art aspect comes into play. The exterior corn murals are replaced and redesigned each year with a new theme, and these designs are created by local artists. From 1948 to 1971 the artist, Oscar Howe (American, 1915-1983), a Dakota Indian of the Yanktonnais tribe was responsible for the murals.

Born at Joe Creek on the Crow Creek Reservation of South Dakota, Howe lived a life of poverty on the reservation, but his interest in art was encouraged by his family. As a youngster he spent hours drawing lines in the dirt or with the charcoal from charred sticks. His talent did not go unrecognized and Howe was enrolled at the famed studio of the Santa Fe Indian School (1935-1938) where students were encouraged to take pride in their cultural heritage.

Again his talent was evident; and as his talent developed, Howe was selected to paint murals under the Works Progress Administrationrsquo;s South Dakota Artist Project. Howe then earned his bachelorrsquo;s. degree at Dakota Wesleyan University in 1952, and taught there as Artist in Residence. Then in 1954, Howe received his M.F.A at the University of Oklahoma. He served as a member of the art faculty and artist-in-residence at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion from 1957 to 1961, and later was named Artist Laureate of South Dakota.

Howe is credited with influencing contemporary Native American art and paving the way for future artists. Said to have an almost Cubism look, his art style is marked by bright color, dynamic motion and pristine lines. Such designs transferred well to the walls of the Corn Palace.

Howe also painted the dome of the Carnegie Library in Mitchell, and created several large murals at the auditorium in Mobridge, S.D. – all of which can still be viewed today.

So celebrated was Howersquo;s work there are several huge corn murals by the artist on permanent display that decorate the interior of the Corn Palace. So celebrated are original Howe pieces, they can now command tens of thousands of dollars.

Calvin Schultz, a local artist who died in 2004, designed the murals from 1977 to 2002. Schultz contracted polio when he was just 18 months old and grew up on a farm near Mitchell. The Corn Palace was a favorite of Schultzrsquo;s as a boy. He spent many hours there while his father did business in town.

In the 2001 article Artist Designs Corn Palace Murals by Charles Cecil on the website, Schultz said, “I was fascinated by the place, but I never dreamed then that one day the murals would feature my designs.”

Schultz dedicated his life to art first teaching at Father Flanaganrsquo;s Boys Town in Omaha, Neb.; then at the Yankton Indian Reservation, and later at Nebraskarsquo;s Juvenile Training School. Schultz then returned to his hometown of Mitchell and taught art for 19 years before retiring in 1983. After his retirement, Schultz devoted his artistic talents to decorating the Corn Palace.

Not unlike Howe, Schultzrsquo;s drawings and paintings are also eagerly collected by art enthusiasts who love this Corn Palace connection. Collectors who seek out artwork by Schultz also admire this artistrsquo;s clean lines and use of color.

Artist and art teacher at Dakota Wesleyan University, Cherie Ramsdell has designed the murals that grace the Corn Palace since 2003.

Regardless of the artist, little has changed as to how the artwork created is transferred to the Corn Palacersquo;s façade. A committee determines the theme to be used each year. The artist then creates designs that reflect this theme. The designs for that year are projected onto roofing paper and then traced with a white felt-tip marker. The roofing paper is next stapled onto the plywood covering the areas of the Corn Palace that will sport murals. Once the paper with designs is in place, creating the mural is not unlike working a massive paint-by-number.

More than 13 colors of corn are used to create the Corn Palace murals including open pollinated corn which is white, three shades of red, three shades of brown, calico, orange variegated, blue, black, green and hybrid yellow corn which is still the most-often used color in the Corn Palace designs. The murals must be replaced yearly because their colors fade and much of the grain is eaten by squirrels and birds.

Yes, the Corn Palace just might be the worldrsquo;s largest bird feeder.

To create the murals, workers split and square off ends from some 300,000 ears of nearly mature corn. The flat sided half-ears are attached to the plywood backing with finishing nails. Small grain and decorative grain bundles like rye and dock are stapled on as borders as well as trim and geometric designs highlighting the murals.

“Cal Shultz was very hands-on when the Palace was being decorated,” said Corn Palace Director Mark Schilling. “He would actually help the decorators with the murals, making changes as the murals were being done in order that his designs looked their best.”

From beginning to end, decorating the Corn Palace each year takes about three months.

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