Owatonna, Minn. — Lillian Colton can remember sorting seeds as a young girl under an expansive elm tree on her family's farm. She grew up in Martin County, dabbled in oil painting and quilting. Eventually she moved to Owatonna, gave birth to five children, and ran a successful beauty salon. Then in the 1960s, Colton once again began sorting seeds.
"Those are sunflower seeds, and there's wheat and poppy seeds. And there's wild rice and timothy, and back farther there's squash and pumpkin," says Colton.
More than a dozen red-capped jars sit in a corner of Colton's kitchen, which she's using these days as a temporary studio. Problems with her leg have kept her out of her usual working space upstairs. There, tucked away is a sprawling walk-in closet filled with carefully labeled, tightly-sealed containers of seeds.
Along with her rainbow collection of seeds, Colton also relies on toothpicks, canvas board, Elmer's glue and the occasional brush of paint. Over the years she's made hundreds of portraits, carefully placing one seed at a time. She's rendered subjects as far ranging as Willie Nelson and Jesus.
She's returned to some people again and again, like Mother Theresa who is currently displayed in her dining room.
"The face is made of timothy," she explains. "Some of the lines are made out of fine black flower seeds. You can use any seed grown in Minnesota, like flowers, they come assorted in different sizes."
When Colton looks at an object -- be it a person, an animal or a landscape -- she sees texture. She says she loves to create elaborate hairdos and men's beards in her pictures. She works on her art for large chunks of each day, and often spreads her time between eight or nine portraits.
Jan Elftman is curating the show, entitled "Lillian's Vision," at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Elftman is an artist in her own right. She remembers touring the Minnesota State Fair as child with her parents, spending lots of time viewing Colton's work. She got to know Colton as an adult, when she commissioned a work of her own.
Elftman said when word got out that she was putting the show together, the phones started ringing. Local collectors began offering to loan their pieces. Elftman says the choice became daunting. Finally she hit upon a solution.
"If she liked a portrait that someone commissioned, she would make a copy of it. If she was interested in something like Barbra Streisand, she made a portrait for herself and she kept it," explains Elftman. "So we finally realized towards the end of the process what we really wanted was -- what did she choose to collect? What was in her personal collection that she kept all of these years?"
Elftman managed to whittle the show down to slightly more than 50 works. She says it's an eclectic combination. Among her favorites is a recent portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt.
"I love the way she did it with the teeth," says Elftman. "She's always painted in the teeth in most of the other portraits. But this one she used pumpkin seeds, and it really made the difference in the Eleanor Roosevelt."
Elftman says Colton has become something of a hero to her. She says she looks forward to getting older and making art.
Lillian Colton has no plans to stop creating. In fact, she has a three-year backlog of commissions. Her show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art runs through the middle of September. And as usual, Colton will be at the seed art display at the Minnesota State Fair later this summer.