Each fall, some of the planet’s largest signs, art, and illustrations emerge from rural landscapes throughout the country.
At ground level, these popular attractions are corn mazes—wayward paths through fields, most of which intentionally lead nowhere. Only when viewed from above does the order in that chaos become apparent as those trails, amid rows of green, combine for a truly colossal image measured in acres rather than feet.
“I like to joke that I’m an artist, but my paintbrush is a tractor and the earth is my canvas,” says Shawn Stolworthy, president and founder of MazePlay, a company that produces about one hundred such mazes each year.
MazePlay is one of a handful of specialists in corn mazes. Although their methods differ slightly, all provide landowners services in maze design, creation, and marketing.
Ultimately their goal is to set their clients up with a money-making, agri-tourism destination. In meeting that need, they produce art and advertising on a grand scale
An impressive, though typical, example is a maze done last year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of all things 1964. Over eighteen acres with more than seven miles of trails, it featured portraits of The Beatles and a drawing of an original Ford Mustang—both which made their American debut that year.
“We’ve yet to tell a client, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” says Rob Stouffer, founder of Precision Mazes. “There’s really no limit to what we can create, as long as the crop is consistent and we have enough space.” (Note: A telling example of his abilities, shown on page 50, is a pointillist portrait of surrealist Salvador Dali created a few years ago on an eight-acre field.)
At The MAiZE, Founder Brett Herbst sees almost limitless potential in what can be done with rows of crops in a field. “We’ve created designs featuring everything from celebrities to marriage proposals,” he notes.
The company’s work has been seen throughout the lower forty-eight states and averages more than one hundred mazes each season. This year, one of the company’s projects called for an eleven-acre rendition of country music superstar Garth Brooks, while another required a field portrait of Taylor Swift.
Art and Commerce
Directly or indirectly, the art and advertising aspect of this work was pioneered by crop artist Stan Herd. “I first began creating monumental earthworks in 1985,” he says, “and I was the first person to actually create large, representational earthworks on the land.”
Herd’s work typically involves precise arrangements of row crops to create the image. He often incorporates other elements—rock, bricks, sand, potted plants and flowers, etc.—to add details and texture. His artistic creations include depictions of everything from Kiowa Chief Satanta, President Obama, and pastoral country scenes to Van Gogh’s painting Olive Trees.
To subsidize these creative endeavors, Herd has also transformed landscapes for business clients. In fact, a recent project had him recreating the logo of ale brewer Shock Top® in a field.
One of Herd’s most visible ads was for Absolut® vodka a few years ago. “The Absolut earthwork was created on seventeen acres out of sorghum, alfalfa, wheat, and plowed ground with some additional mulch,” he recalls.
Photographer Jonathan Blumb shot the field from the air throughout the year for seasonal variations. “The photos captured green wheat in spring, then [it] being harvested as a golden image, and then in the fall, which is the shot Absolut chose for the ad,” says Herd, noting that a winter shot with snow highlighting the image offered yet another perspective.
Most corn mazes, in contrast, are intended as fall events, although many have a commercial purpose too. Some merely promote that maze and its host from above; others double as actual ads for a participating sponsor.
“More and more, we’ve seen our farms being approached by companies and other organizations who have an interest in partnering together and being featured in what’s essentially the biggest billboard available,” notes Herbst.
Maze Design and Delivery
The graphics featured in most mazes are merely functional art. Cartoon favorites, pop culture icons, logos, sports mascots, QR codes, patriotic themes, and local landmarks have all been featured as maze designs.
In every case, with every supplier, the process typically begins over the winter months with some acres and an idea. “We start with exact dimensions of the field we’re working with, then take it from there,” says Chayce Whitworth, chief designer for MazePlay.
Like other maze specialists, he’s protective of the software and proprietary tools he uses to finalize his designs, though the process is always similar. “All our designs start out as line art, which we slowly turn into a maze,” says Whitworth.
The lines in that art double as the paths through the maze. Designing a graphic that will also function as a maze can be a challenging, tedious process. The real purpose of these graphics is as a visual puzzle at ground level. Ideally people traveling one line can’t see across the field to the next.
The entire project must take into account the spacing between rows in which corn, sorghum soybeans, or other row crops are typically planted. That can vary depending on region and crop, but the average spacing between rows is thirty inches.
Because these graphics are neither entirely horizontal nor vertical, maze producers usually recommend landowners sow the field in rows equally spaced running east-west and north-south.
As the plants grow, those rows create a living design grid for transferring the image on computer screen or paper to the field. Before that work begins, satellite imagery of the field may be used to give designers some idea of how well their design works within the parameters of that field, and if any modifications are required.
Cutting and Clearing
When the crop has grown between knee- to waist-high, maze creation begins. In some cases, that work is done by the landowners themselves, but most mazes are actually cut or cleared by the companies that design them.
And here’s where their preferred methods most differ.
The MAiZE can supply its customers with GPS coordinates to guide them in cutting the design with a vehicle navigation system. “GPS can make the process a little simpler, but we’ve found it can sometimes be less accurate,” according to Dusty Rigby, one of the company’s design and cut specialists.
In most cases, members of the The MAiZE staff travel to the site to do the work. Using one corner as a reference point, they’ll plot the design out on the living grid of corn rows using colored flags. Then, starting from one corner, they’ll cut the maze design, row by row, using zero turn mowers.
Stouffer and his staff also cut their mazes but rely on GPS coordinates and a navigation system to guide them in their work. “We design on twenty-foot centers between paths, then cut a path that is generally five feet wide,” he says. “I use the GPS file we’ve created of our design to show me where I am and where I need to be next.”
Accoding to Stouffer, depending on when in the season they cut and the growing conditions, he advises the landowner they may have to do some additional path maintenance before the maze opens in the fall.
Stolworthy also creates mazes guided by GPS. Rather than cut his designs, however, he uses a tractor pulling a modified tiller to turn crops under to completely clear the paths that make up the design.
“If we’re hitting a field pretty early, the landowner may need to take care of some weeds later in the year,” he says. “Usually once we’re done, the maze will continue to grow up just as it’s supposed to look.”
Amazingly Large Ads
By late summer, that image, as seen from above, is a selling point of these mazes.
Most maze owners use aerial photos to promote their mazes. Intricate, interesting designs and iconic images can generate a lot of coverage in local media, as the fall maze season draws near. For the maze owner and participating sponsors, all that attention translates into a lot of free advertising.
In fact, a new advertising medium could be taking root in the countryside. “There’s real opportunity in what we do to create ads that really show off our capabilities,” says Stouffer.
“Our designs are only limited by the size of that field,” reiterates Stolworthy. “It really comes down to how much space we have to work with.”
By Mike Antoniak
Photos (top to bottom): Precision Mazes, The MAiZE, MazePlay.