The Columns

Book by W&L's Pamela Simpson Published Posthumously

— by on May 1st, 2012

When Pamela Simpson, the Ernest Williams II Professor of Art History at Washington and Lee University, would tell people she was writing a history of corn palaces and butter sculptures, a common response was a blank stare and a “What?”

Simpson included that anecdote in the preface to her new book, “Corn Palaces and Butter Queens: A History of Crop Art and Dairy Sculpture” (University of Minnesota Press, April 2012). A popular and influential professor at W&L for 38 years, she had completed all but the index of the publication before she died on Oct. 4, 2011.

More than just an entertaining history of one of America’s art forms, “Corn Palaces and Butter Queens” “will be THE book to fully document this sometimes odd but fascinating area of American cultural history,” wrote Colleen Sheehy, author of “Seed Queen: The Story of Crop Art and the Amazing Lillian Colton,” in her review.

Simpson spent 12 years researching the subject, about which little had been written. She first discovered it as a graduate student preparing her master’s thesis about Cass Gilbert’s buildings at the Saint Louis 1904 World’s Fair. “The official histories of the exposition pictured amazing exhibits in the Agricultural Building, including a corn-covered classical temple, a model of the California State House in almonds, and Teddy Roosevelt in butter. I promised myself that someday I would learn more about them,” Simpson wrote in the preface.

The result is a book that the publisher describes as a fascinating and comprehensive history of 1870 to 1930, when large exhibition buildings everywhere from county fairs to world festivals were adorned with grains, fruits and vegetables, and contained sculptures made from dairy products.

Simpson’s research included period newspapers, official government reports and historical collections from places in the Midwest that hosted festivals and fairs that featured such artworks. She aimed to reveal the ideas, beliefs, practices and motives of the period, with its attendant values.”Not only is the outrageousness of using food to make sculpture or to clad a building of interest,” she wrote, “the aim is to learn what these objects embodied for those who sponsored them, created them and viewed them.”

“One of Pamela’s talents was to take very ordinary architectural or artistic expressions and really dig in and see what was behind them and what the implications were. It’s a very scholarly book,” said Delos Hughes, emeritus professor of politics at W&L, and a good friend of Simpson.

Simpson also found archival and photographic collections in major libraries in the United States, Canada and Britain, and postcards, advertising cards and stereo views on eBay. As a result, the book is richly illustrated with many never-before-seen images.

Simpson was the first female tenure-track professor at W&L. The first woman to receive an endowed chair, she was named the inaugural Ernest Williams II Professor of Art History in 1993. She earned a B.A. in art from Gettysburg College in 1968; an M.A. in art history from the University of Missouri in 1970; and a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Delaware in 1974. 

“Corn Palaces and Butter Queens: A History of Crop Art and Dairy Sculpture” is available at bookstores and online, as well as at W&L’s University Store (http://bookstore.wlu.edu).

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Sarah Tschiggfrie
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stschiggfrie@wlu.edu
540-458-8235

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