As Dublin celebrates the 25th anniversary of the quirky attraction, its creator talks about its playful (and somber) origins.

When artist Malcolm Cochran proposed putting 109 human-size concrete ears of corn in a former farm field in Dublin, the idea didn’t get a warm reception.  Critics complained, snickered and wondered if the $70,000 price tag was the best use of public funds. In a letter to the editor that appeared in The Columbus Dispatch, one wiseacre called it “Corncobs in Flight,” an allusion to the controversial and oft-ridiculued sculpture at the Columbus airport. 

Twenty five years later, the perception has changed dramatically. “Field of Corn (with Osage Oranges)” is now celebrated as one of Central Ohio’s most beloved and even iconic public artworks—a playful and quirky attraction that exemplifies how popular perception of art can evolve from hostility to affection.

On Saturday, the Dublin Arts Council will host a play-themed 25th birthday party for “Field of Corn” at Frantz Park, 4995 Rings Road. It’s an appropriate tribute, as children have always enjoyed scampering through the rows of 6-foot-tall ears of corn. But its creator, Columbus resident Malcolm Cochran, a retired Ohio State University professor of sculpture, says his installation also has a more serious side, describing it as a “cemetery to farming.” Earlier this week, Columbus Monthly spoke with Cochran, who will also give a talk at Saturday’s event, about “Field of Corn.”

What was the initial reaction to “Field of Corn”?
I was [in the Netherlands] when the proposal was accepted. Very soon after that, someone sent me by fax—because we had no email at that point—the front page of The Dispatch. I’m not sure that I’m quoting it quite correctly, but it was something to the effect of “Field of Corn to set Dublin on its Ear.” [Close. The actual headline: “Concrete Cornfield Good Bet to Set Dublin on its Ear.”] So yes, there was a lot of pushback. And I remember talking with the then-director of the public art program, and they were kind of twisting and turning on what do we do about this.

When did you begin to see the public view of “Field of Corn” change?
I’m sure it was a gradual change, but for me the most dramatic shift came in about 2000 when the Mall at Tuttle Crossing published its spring advertising brochure. When I did “Field of Corn,” that mall didn’t even exist. The mall was using images of “Field of Corn” as the background for their entire spring brochure. One of my students at OSU at the time brought it into class and said, “Hey, have you seen this thing?” I thought, “Boy, this is really a remarkable example of a piece going from resistance to public art to embracing it”—and embracing it not necessarily for artistic reasons, but embracing it for economic reasons, as kind of an icon of the area. For that to happen in six years is really quick.

What makes “Field of Corn” iconic?
One of my reasons for having the ears of corn be the scale that they are—they’re 6 to 6 foot 3 inches—is because humans read the world through our own body scale. We can’t escape that. We are the measure of our worlds, and we intuitively sense that. There is something figurative about these pieces, even though they don’t have faces or features of any kind. Standing next to them is like standing next to a tall adult. They’re not monumental, and they’re not miniature, but they are us. So I think there’s a connection because of their scale.

And then they are goofy. They’re meant to be something that’s quite playful, like a roadside attraction. As you’re driving and you see the rows go by, you have a kind of [an] “OMG” moment. It’s a pleasant surprise. There’s humor in it. There’s a sense of goofiness. But it also works on other levels.

What are those other levels?
Coming from New England where I grew up, the culture there is very much preservation, respect for colonial times, the colonial history. When I moved here to teach in 1987, I was astounded at the speed and extent of urban sprawl. Part of that has to do with the landscape here, the edge of the glacier where there are very few geographical impediments to spread, unlike a place like Cincinnati that’s got the hills containing it or Cleveland with the lake up against it. And it concerned me that farmland was being eaten up by suburban housing. … So this piece went in at the cusp of that shift from an agricultural community to a suburban service city. And I felt it was important to memorialize the agricultural past of that area. I think of it as a cemetery to agriculture, a cemetery to farming, and the ears are white because I wanted to obliquely reference something like Arlington National Cemetery where you have rows of identical crosses. A lot of monumental buildings are white. This is not white stone; it’s white concrete. But if they were painted yellow, it would be definitely kind of a goofy, kind of a pop-y quality to it. This is also something that’s a bit somber. 

It’s interesting that it’s both somber and playful. Do those two qualities conflict?
Just as a poem can operate on the level of the narrative alone without a metaphor, this can be appreciated on any one of the levels. But it’s my hope that for some people it’s appreciated on all of them at the same time.

Columbus has long had a reputation for being unreceptive to public art. Is that beginning to change?
I think it has changed because [former] Mayor Coleman instituted a push to include public art in capital expenditures—buildings and parks—and he seated the first [Columbus] Art Commission. I was on that commission for a number of years. I and perhaps some of the others on that commission are disappointed that a formal budget has never been been given for it. There’s kind of an allowance or an expectation that public art will be included in things, but we still don’t have a percent-for-art program. There are cities like Sacramento that have had one for well over 30 years—essentially a percent of capital expenditures go to public art. Cleveland had one for a very long time. Philadelphia has a terrific history of public support for public art. So I think there’s enthusiasm for it, but we still don’t have a robust program for public art.

Are there lessons that we can learn from the life cycle of “Field of Corn”?
Public art can be complex. There’s always going to be a pushback for things that are somewhat challenging. I wouldn’t have thought of this being that challenging, but commissioning agencies  are up against it. Like any work of art, it should ask questions as well as sometimes provide answers. That’s the part that’s difficult with public art because it’s public ownership. A complex read takes a little bit of work as opposed to something that’s just pretty or attractive.

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