The slopes of Yunnan to be the canvas of crop artist

Kelly Pringle
American crop artist Stan Herd is working on his new project in Yunnan Province that will be unveiled at the end of the year.
Kelly Pringle

American Stan Herd is a world-renowned artist from the small farming community of Lawrence, Kansas. Known for his masterful earthworks and images that are created out of large areas of land, Herd has been creating landscape art for over 40 years.

His latest work will be on display in southwest China's Yunnan Province at the end of the year. Spanning 4 acres of sloped terrain in the city of Mile, this newest crop art, named "Young Woman of China," has quickly become one of his most challenging works yet.

“When I was first contacted by Ji Cheng Group (a family-owned company developing many projects in Yunnan including work with schools, parks, agriculture and tourism), I was skeptical,” Herd says. "I get many offers from people to commission pieces, but very few turn into serious opportunities."

Herd’s response to the invitation was blunt; he told them he wanted the earthwork to be a celebration of indigenous people and women’s rights. “I actually thought it might end our conversation,” he says, not knowing what kind of reaction to expect.

The response to his concept took him by surprise. The team in China fully embraced his hopes for the piece and were eager to move forward with planning. Herd hadn’t realized that the region of China he had been in contact with, Yunnan, is home to the largest population of ethnic minorities in the country.

“The serendipity was exceptional,” he recalls. Being so responsive to his plan to celebrate both indigenous people and women’s rights, what originally felt like another loose offer quickly solidified into a serious prospect.

Herd then started plans to create a new earthwork in a culture and country he knew virtually nothing about.

“Like most Americans, I knew very little about China,” Herd admits. His own exposure to Chinese culture and history was limited, but he hopes that can change in the future.

“China appears to be opening up to the rest of the world and revealing its incredibly diverse and beautiful history,” he says. He hopes that this piece can be a part of that opening and show a new side of China that some foreigners might not know about, one with which he has developed a deep personal connection.

Ti Gong

Stan Herd (left) discusses his work with the Chinese team.

Ti Gong

An illustration of Herd's crop work "Young Woman of China"

The piece pays tribute to the Yi people, an ethnic minority in the area. “I had the honor of dancing with a troupe from the Yi minority group at a ceremony marking my first visit to Yunnan,” Herd says. The connection was instant — and it was then he realized the Yi minority is a perfect muse for his earthwork.

“We’ve been engaging with them in the symbolism of the work,” he says. Collaboration with the Yi people is as essential piece of the operation as any other. Since the work is a tribute to them, it’s important to Herd that it resonates and represents them in the best way possible.

“I hope that the effort will be received in the spirit of friendship, and of a shared desire to inform the public about the amazing history of the region,” Herd says. 

Most foreigners know almost nothing about ethnic minorities in China, so he sees it as an opportunity to bring forward a culture and a story that don’t often get shared — which has been a challenge he’s been happy to take on.

Even with some 40 years of earthwork experience, Herd still thinks this piece in China has quickly become a highlight of his artistic career, both in substance and in scale of production.

The logistics of a project of this size and complexity are no small task. Herd and his team have been working closely with engineers to ensure that the work is both aesthetically pleasing and ecologically sustainable. 

The details and careful planning that must go into a project like this one are no small feat. “The plants and the larger impact on the ecosystem are so important,” Herd says. The complexity of the image creates an immense challenge, especially in terms of sloping terrain and drainage.

“Blending numerous academic and technical skills to complete the work, that’s the reward of a relationship like this,” he says.

The Yunnan project should be completed and open for viewing by the end of this year. “The earthwork is scheduled to be completed by December 1. We are comfortable that the goal is achievable,” he says. The crop artwork is the centerpiece of what will become an 800-acre park, which will also have hotels, vacation houses and an equestrian center, as well as a gallery featuring some of Herd’s other works.

Turning 66 this year, Herd considers this piece to be one of his last major works. Widely considered the "father of crop art," this piece will no doubt be a milestone not just in his own career, but within the entire earthwork community. He is known around the world for creating masterful works of art, and is one of the most respected artists in his field.

His career may be drawing to a close, but Herd still has hopes for future work here in China. As his last great work, he wants to build an 18- to 26-story museum in the shape of a horse — reminiscent of the Trojan Horse from Greek mythology.

“Access would be through elevators in the legs. The body would hold the museum and the head would hold offices,” Herd says. He’s had the drawings since 1987, holding onto the plans in the back of his mind until the perfect opportunity arose.

Originally, the plan was to build the museum in the United Arab Emirates, but since spending more and more time here in China, Herd has begun to think it was better suited here.

Still actively looking for a home for his latest idea, Herd says: “I’m hopeful that one of the Provinces will see the benefit of this monumental sculpture.”

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