Corn as art

Field of Dreams in Dyersville, IA by John Bollwitt.

We often talk about the science of corn (aka maize) but there’s so much more to it. I’ll be leaving corn country soon to start a new job, and I know I’ll miss being in the center of so much maize.

Consider the natural beauty of a cornfield swaying in a summer breeze, with killdeer and red-winged blackbirds calling amongst the buzzing of grasshoppers.

It’s just a cornfield, but the combination of symmetry and asymmetry from afar and up close, of being in the presence of a plant that has been touched by humans for thousands of years, somehow makes it a very interesting place to be – even when I have many hours of pollinating or harvesting behind and ahead of me.

Center panel of the Evolution of Corn mural by Lowell Houser.

Each time I’ve visited the post office here in Ames, I’ve noticed a beautiful mural. This time, I asked about it and was directed to the Ames Historical Society website (the mural inspired this post). ”Evolution of Corn” was painted in 1938 by Lowell Houser. It is oil on canvas, an impressive 18’2” x 5’9”. The details are stunning, a tribute to corn farmers and breeders from both ancient and modern times. If you’re ever in Ames, I highly recommend seeing it in person.

In addition to all of the art you can find around the corner in Ames, Iowa State University has the largest art collection of any university in the United States. You can view it though the eyes of a student at the Art on Campus blog. It’s not all about corn, but agriculture is a strong theme. The art of Iowa State has inspired quite a bit of poetry, much of it with strong agriculture and science themes.

I’ve lived in many places, but Ames, Iowa has stolen my heart. Ames is such a lovely place, in part because of all the corn, and all of the art, but also because of the people. It’s so nice, we need our own song:

Ames, Ames, gee whiz,
Now we will sing and tell what it is,
A swell little city of which we are proud,
Her praises we’ll sing, in melody loud,
A beautiful city as ev’ry one knows,
In the heart of the state where the tall corn grows.


  1. Maize absolutely is a work of art. The cumulative creative expression of countless artisans over hundreds of generations. Most of them working not just for the sake of their art, but also to feed their children.
    Artists are always frustrated and disappointed when their creative expressions cannot be appreciated by those who lack the ability to appreciate the beauty in their creations. Such is always the lot of artists working on the cutting edge.
    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, even art as beautiful and elegant as GM maize. The loss is to those who are unable to appreciate it.

  2. Looks like the inside of a cathedral. I’d say St. Stephen’s in Vienna.

  3. You are welcome. I am an engineer/researcher who mostly works with his aesthetic sense. It is the aesthetics of design that drive how I design things and how I see the world; that form always follows from function.
    As I see it, all design is an optimization of costs and benefits over the product life-cycle and beyond. Reducing life-cycle costs while maintaining the same or increased benefits is the essence of good engineering and is always a net good. Increasing life-cycle costs while reducing benefits is always a net bad. You have to include all the costs and all the benefits, and integrate them forward in perpetuity.
    The major driving force for the ongoing mass extinction (a net bad) is habitat loss due to conversion of wild habitat to agricultural land. The magnitude of habitat loss relates inversely to the agricultural land crop yields. This is why I do my best to avoid foods that are labeled “organic”. I consider it to be selfish and wasteful extravagance to put form above function, something that only the wealthy can afford, and when they impose their organic fetish on the poor (as Europe is doing to Africa), the poor can suffer greatly.
    There are so many good things that GE products could do. I got kind of discouraged at the analysis by Steve Savage that there will be so few plants that will be genetically modified. 🙁
    I really like products that could have a gigantic impact on human well being, products like Golden Rice. High yield varieties have a large environmental benefit by reducing the area under cultivation. Varieties that can be cultivated under no-till schemes have a benefit too.
    I would like to see are perennials that can grow in sea water and efficiently generate biofuels, such as palms producing carnauba wax. Floating plantations of ten million km2 could sustainably supply 30+ billion barrels per year (about what peak oil is estimated to be) using the current figure for palm oil yield. That would be enough to supply transportation fuels if electricity could be generated with solar and wind.
    If you could grow plants in sea water, you could move food production out into floating plantations too. That would free up lots of land for wildlife habitat. If you could run plants on hydrogen, you could beat the efficiency of photosynthesis by using solar cells or thermal solar electric to generate hydrogen.
    30 years ago, who would have predicted that a company (Google) could have a successful business by giving away the computing power to search billions of pages of records, and being compensated by people looking at ads? People have to eat every day. Why can’t a day’s worth of calories get paid for by advertising something while they are eating it?

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