There are some fine examples of mosaic wall art in the United States. If you’ve come to appreciate the many ways that it can be displayed, you might even think about mapping out some of the locations where particularly outstanding pieces can be seen. New York City springs to mind – or Philadelphia. However, for the very newest (it’s updated annually!) and largest installation (It covers an entire arena facility!), you must absolutely put Mitchell, South Dakota on your itinerary. Mitchell, you see, is home to the Corn Palace – dazzling visitors since 1892 with its intricate mosaic art made entirely of – you might have guessed this – Corn.
A Short History of the American Grain Palace
Back in the late 1800s, America was spoiling for entertainment and caught up in a bit of an “Agricultural Palace” phase. And why not? Agriculture was big business. Throughout the Great Plains states, there was stiff competition for who could construct the most impressive Palace. Some of the contenders back then were Corn Palaces in Sioux City, Iowa, Gregory, South Dakota, another South Dakota Grain Palace, and a Bluegrass Palace in Creston, Iowa. Their function was both promotion and tourist draw – the buildings showcased the rich farming potential of the Grain Belt, as well as their host cities. And people came to visit them!
Mitchell wanted in on the latest agri-tourism trend, and the original Mitchell Corn Palace had some serious backing with committee funding. The city scrambled to build an imposing structure that resembled a wooden castle. It might have been just another footnote in local history, had the city of Mitchell not decided to challenge the city of Pierre for the location of the South Dakota state capitol. Thus, in 1905, the structure became even bigger, better, and more impressive. Mitchell had thrown down the corn husk, so to speak. Even though Mitchell didn’t get to become the capital, the Corn Palace still became a tourist attraction, and has been rebuilt twice since then – the latest incarnation was in 1937. It’s always been a gathering place, a home for Fall festivals, and yes, it’s always been decorated with corn. Lots of corn.
Always Fresh Art
The reinforced concrete structure of the current building provides a suitable background for the annual change of mosaic mural art. It’s a big job (we’ll talk about that in a moment) and the theme is updated each year. Here are a few of the previous motifs.
2017 celebrated the types of South Dakota weather, from thunder and lightning storms to tornadoes and snow.
Another year was themed the Rock of Ages and depicted musical stars from Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson.
2005 was all about Life on the Farm:
How It’s Done
The process of making mosaic wall art from corn is both predictably complex, but exceptionally well organized. Currently, local artist Cherie Ramsdell has the honor of creating the designs for the enormous pieces. She first paints each of the murals on a smaller scale to start the process.
After completing the painting, they are projected onto black tar paper, so that they can be traced out. Ramsdell then begins mapping out the placement of the corn cobs – much as custom mosaic tile pieces are created. In this case, instead of tiles, dried corn cobs that have been split in half for flatness are used to provide the color and texture.
The corn is of course grown locally, and the colors are special. The naturally colored corn varieties include shades of red, brown, black, white, orange, calico, yellow and even green. Each is cultivated in a separate plot to maintain the color purity and avoid cross-pollination. Each year’s murals require over 325,000 years, 1.5 million nails, and a lot of volunteer labor to attach them to the walls. Even using nail guns, it takes about two months for the complete overhaul of the Corn Palace exterior.
Although corn is used for the main mosaic wall art, each piece is outlined with a border of grains and grasses. Rye and dock are two of the main materials used.
The Interior Mosaic Work
Although the Corn Palace gets all the attention for its exterior murals, it has some pretty wonderful examples of mosaic wall art inside. The Corn Palace of today is a busy event center, with plenty of traffic to enjoy the historical scenes that are depicted. They’re also lovely.
Mount Rushmore, another South Dakota landmark, is shown here:
The exchange of a Peace Pipe between a Native American and an early settler is depicted in this section:
The area above the stage shows a series of round friezes that depict other elements of South Dakota lore.
The event space is the home of concerts, rodeos, polka dances, and basketball games for the local high school team: The Mitchell Kernels. It’s also where many tournaments are played. As a matter of fact, the Corn Palace is ranked in the Top 10 in the U.S. for high school basketball games – and they’re broadcasted by the local radio station: KORN. With all that pride, it’s really not that surprising that even the pillars inside the arena are decorated with mosaic designs.
A Bit of Architectural Controversy
As we mentioned, the Corn Palace has been rebuilt more than once, but the existing style, featuring dome-shaped minarets and a splash of Spanish revival and Moorish influences, was updated in 2015. LED lighting was added to the exterior, and the familiar domes were replaced with some airy steel pieces that mimicked the shape, if not the exact look of the originals. Although there were grumbles from some locals, the city of Mitchell felt that it was time to bring the Corn Palace into the 21st century.
The Corn Palace with the updated domes is shown here:
Some complained that the LED lighting made downtown Mitchell, South Dakota look more like Las Vegas. Nevertheless, the attraction draws a steady 500,000 visitors a year.
How to Visit
With free admission, guided tours, fun facts, inspiring and original mosaic designs, corn-related souvenirs, and the opportunity to take your photo with Cornelius, the much larger-than-life mascot of the Corn Palace, no-one should miss the opportunity to visit this piece of American History on their summer road trip. The Corn Palace is located in downtown Mitchell, South Dakota on 604 North Main Street.