By Linda Whitmore
Philis Schmidt has made die Früchtsäule for Oktoberfest every year since 2002, but, although she uses a variety of beans and lentils, herbs and spices; she’s not cooking up a dish to be sold in one of the many food vendor chalets.
Die Früchtsäule is German for “the Harvest Monument” and Schmidt is the artist who conceives and creates the monolith in the center of all the town’s activities. “It’s kinda fun to hear what people call it – like ‘bean pole,’” Schmidt said.
It’s a German tradition to craft a monument using food items as a way of giving thanks for the harvest’s bounty.
Gluing bean by bean, seed by seed, Schmidt makes intricate pictures and designs on plywood sheets. It takes about 40 hours to put the materials on each of the eight panels – a process that follows months of mulling over what to illustrate; gathering supplies and preparing the panels..
Schmidt works under the direction of Oktoberfest board member Jerry Lauzon, who, on the last day of one festival, tells her what the next year’s theme will be. This year, it’s “Embrace our Bavarian heritage,” – during Oktoberfest, everyone’s a bit Bavarian.
Schmidt conceives the designs, acquires materials, and, when summer comes, spends eight weeks executing the project.
During the school year she is a special education aide in Silverton High School’s Structured Learning Program. Previously she worked at Central Howell School where her artistic skills were noted by parent Doug Staab. He recommended her to the O’fest board, and after some persuasion, she agreed to take on the monumental project.
In the local arts scene, Schmidt is primarily known as a watercolorist. She was a part of the Lunaria Gallery team for 11 years, but she admits that between her full-time job and her summers making the Harvest Monument, there hasn’t been any time for painting recently.
Lauzon, who she calls her “boss,” eased her initiation into the project by calling those who previously made it and got information about techniques and resources.
“The first couple of years, it’s really hard,” Schmidt said. “I learned a lot of tricks along the way.” For example – she’s developed a process to be sure the materials stick to the board. Schmidt recalls the 2004 Oktoberfest, which was plagued by rain – she says “monsoon.”
“The Harvest Monument melted,” she said. “The glue got wet and two sides just slumped off. It was a disaster.” Since then she developed a watersealing process that protects the panels.
And they have to last more than the few days of the festival. The panels often go to local restaurants, the Weingarten or the Biergarten as décor. She doesn’t want bugs to infest them, she says.
In addition to learning construction tricks, Schmidt has learned much about which seed, bean, herb or grain to use for the various colors and textures she needs.
Early on, she once used dried hydrangea blossoms. “They were perfect for the sky color I wanted.” After they were glued on, she applied the watersealer. “They turned brown!” she said. “So I had to paint every single petal. I learned something there.”
Now she paints lima beans blue for the sky. To make beautyberries (“the dried ones are incredibly priced”) she sprayed soybeans pink and red. “Pretty soon they look like beautyberries.” While she might fudge a little by painting beans, Schmidt says that’s alright. “There are no rules.”
For the most part, she uses natural products including poppy and safflower seeds, a large variety of flower seeds that she sometimes gets from local growers; grits, buckwheat, millet, mung beans, lentils and even herbs from her kitchen.
Sometimes she “sneaks in” visages of family members and friends, but says this year’s people are just “made up.” Buckwheat, cream of wheat and cinnamon make skin tones – however, she’s learned these foodstuffs are inadequate for the intricacies of faces, so she leaves the paint exposed.
Schmidt paints the pictures on the panels first. Then applies the seeds and beans. Sometimes friends come over and help with the gluing. Her husband, Peter, is a meticulous worker – “he glues the cut-side down on every split pea!” she said.
Pete is a first-year Oktoberfest board member and previously served a couple of years an associate member. He also helps his wife put the monuments together.
After the long process of conceiving the designs, painting the scenes on the panels and tedious hours of gluing and sealing; the work’s not done.
The Schmidts take the panels to Mt. Angel from their rural Scotts Mills home and on the day before O’fest opens, they build the Harvest Monument. Philis has a plan for which panel goes what direction. This year for instance, she has created a German-style cuckoo clock, complete with clockworks; that she wants to have facing the only direction that one can’t see the Glockenspiel clock.
Each of the top four panels has a corresponding larger panel below. When the panels are mounted, the couple adds potted plants and staples on garlands of hops. “It takes hours to put the hops on,” she said. Then the fruit is secured to the “waist” of the monument. Making the patterned arrangement of the fruit is very difficult, she admits, and it too takes several hours to complete.
When die Früchtsäule is all done, she can enjoy Oktoberfest. Once she overheard a festival-goer say the project is created by a committee. She laughs, saying, “Yeah, I’m a committee of one” – with some help from her husband and friends.