Wheat the heck? Straw art from rural Montana
WHITETAIL, MT (AP) - Likely few farmers have looked at a wheat field after harvest and thought "art."
But Carol Ann Oster, whose family farms northeast of Scobey along the Canadian border, saw the potential in the wheat straw left after harvest. She uses it to create molded paper.
Oster said color isn't her strong suit so she decided to do something that was just white, reported the Great Falls Tribune (http://gftrib.com/2ksUhVo).
"I started making paper, using a lot of recycled paper," she said. "Then I started making paper out of weeds and grasses. We're wheat farmers so I thought that was a good local thing to use."
When her husband was in law school, Oster took a water color class and "one thing leads to another," she said. She still does watercolor paintings, but also pastels, pencil drawings and the paper making.
Oster makes designs in clay and then makes a mold — a process that was no stretch for the dental hygienist — for the paper mixture.
She started with guardian angel figures for new babies, celestial bodies, buffalo and flying pigs. They're matted and framed at the Wheatgrass Arts Gallery in Glasgow. Sometimes she's played up the wheat aspect by framing her creations with kernels and bearded wheat. Local and visiting buyers alike have found her work.
"When people are going through the area, they want something from the area, the local craft," she said. "That's what we do when we shop somewhere."
Oster has seen some, but not much, paper casting through the years.
"You can find some paper molds, but I like making my own creations," she said.
She could dye or bleach the wheat pulp, but the natural golden wheat color is so appealing. She likes a rougher texture, too, stringy with curlicues.
"It's wheat, and I want it to be wheat," she said. "I love the color in the fields."
When she started gathering wheat straw, Oster aimed for fresh out of the back of the combine. She's learned since then it's easier when the combine has run over it a few times.
When she used recycled paper, the process was relatively easy. With the wheat straw, it's laborious.
First she gathers the wheat straw and washes it several times, outside preferably. She cuts it into two-inch pieces and boils it in a pot with soda ash for six to eight hours.
"When you cook it, it smells like a barnyard that's wet. It's terrible," she said. "If you soak it before you cook it, it's a little better. You get rid of some of that dirt."
After it's cooked, Oster uses a 2-by-4 to beat the fiber in a bucket. Then she puts it in a blender.
"You can get different types of fibers by how long you beat it and how much you refine it," she said. "Usually I do a lot at a time. I let it dry in clumps and store it. When I want to make a piece, I just throw it in some water, run it through the blender and then use it."
Then the pulp goes into a mold she's made.
"It's all very unromantic and yucky," she said. "It's messy and plain-Jane."
But the result, well that's art.