Artist Designs Corn Palace Murals

American Artisans, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on September 30, 2001

Calvin Schultz creates art fit for a palace. His medium is corn, with 30,000 bushels of small grain and a common weed or two thrown in for good measure.

The 74-year-old retired schoolteacher has designed the murals, which cover the exterior of the world’s only Corn Palace in his hometown of Mitchell, S.D., (pop. 14,558) for a quarter century.

“It’s my dream come true,” says Schultz, who first visited the Corn Palace as a child.

Raised on a farm near Mitchell, Schultz contracted polio when he was 18 months old. When he was a young boy, his father would drop him off at the Corn Palace while he did other business in town. Schultz spent hours scooting around the palace floor in a red coaster wagon propelled along with his one good leg.

“I was fascinated by the place,” he recalls. “But I never dreamed then that one day the murals would feature my designs.”

After teaching at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha, Neb., the Marty Mission School on the Yankton Indian Reservation, and at the state’s Juvenile Training School, Schultz spent 19 years teaching art in Mitchell before retiring in 1983 and devoting his time to decorating the Corn Palace.

Built in 1919, the large brick building is used for community entertainment and sporting events and is a symbol of the state’s largest industry—agriculture. More than 500,000 people visit the Corn Palace each year.

Nowadays, Schultz tools around the Corn Palace in his wheelchair, visiting with tourists and inspecting his creations. “Sometimes I look up at a mural and say ‘Hey, that’s pretty good,”’ he says. “It gives me a nice feeling inside.”

Each year, Corn Palace officials select a theme for the murals before Schultz goes to work sketching small renditions of the dozen 8-foot-tall murals. This year’s theme is South Dakota events, from rodeos and roundups to powwows and cavalry forts.

Schultz has 11 different corn colors to choose from, all grown by Mitchell farmer and amateur corn breeder Dean Strand. The open pollinated corn is white, three shades of red, three shades of brown, calico, orange variegated, and blue. Regular hybrid yellow corn provides the most often used color in Schulz’s designs.

“We’ve even tried using green corn, but as it ages it becomes pretty ugly stuff,” says Strand, explaining that the murals must be replaced yearly because their colors fade and much of the grain is eaten by squirrels and birds. “We’ve got the world’s largest bird feeder.”

After the corn is harvested, Schultz’s finished paintings are projected onto large rolls of black roofing paper and the enlarged scenes are traced by his daughter, Paula Guhin, an art teacher in Aberdeen, with a white felt-tipped pen. Then the roofing paper is nailed to the plywood siding at the Corn Palace.

“From then on, it’s just like painting by the numbers,” he says.

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. The small grain and decorative weed bundles are stapled on as borders, trim and geometric designs highlighting the murals.

Start to finish, dressing the Corn Palace each year takes about three months.

Corn Palace enthusiast Sue Jones sums up the community’s feelings about Schultz, the “corn artist.”

“He’s just a great guy with a lot of talent,” she says. “He makes all of us very proud of our Corn Palace.”

Growing up, Schultz was unable to help his father and seven brothers with farm work. He says his disability inspired him to pursue art.

“I spent my time sketching pictures and carving things out of the chalk rock I’d find in the gravel pit,” he says. “I’d have never ended up doing this if I hadn’t had polio.”