Food Art Festival brings 'The Toastman' to Hong Kong
From afar, Maurice Bennett's Mona Lisa looks like a wry homage to pixel art. But step a bit closer and you’ll realize those aren’t pixels at all -- they’re pieces of toast. For the past decade, this 53-year-old artist has created an impressive oeuvre of portraits of celebrities and works inspired by the art of New Zealand's indigenous Maori people, all of it made from toasted bread.
Late last week, Bennett found himself inside K-11, the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping centre, which is playing host to the new Food Art Festival. A giant rendition of the Mona Lisa eating pink ice cream was taking shape on the mall's first floor, in a studio that smelled of gas and burnt toast.
"The reason I got into toast was because I saw a portrait by the American artist Chuck Close that was pixellated," says Bennett, a slight man with a ready smile, as he takes a break from work. "People know portraits, people accept them. If you do a famous person it falls easily into the public arena."
That's exactly what happened with Bennett’s portraits of Elvis, Peter Jackson, Dame Edna, Eminem and Obama.
A supermarket entrepreneur by day, Bennett knew exactly how
to capitalize on the novelty of his work, readily branding himself "The Toastman" and putting up
with every lame toast joke people threw at him. But he is quick to dismiss any notion that his work is a gimmick.
"It's a bit quirky, but nobody else is using toast as a medium," he says. "I like
working with the challenges. There's only so much you can do with a piece of bread."
What seem closer to Bennett's heart than the portraits are his playful abstract works, many inspired by traditional Maori carvings.
"Portraiture is universal, but interpreting the indigenous art of your country is more of a challenge," he says. Bennett especially likes the way the Maori represent the human form and their use of certain motifs, such as spirals. "It’s not as a Westerner would see it," he says.
Bennett creates patterns in toast by putting slices of bread under a heavy cast-iron stencil and burning it with a blow torch. After he completes a work, he coats it in polyurethane to preserve it. For the most part, he sticks with white bread -- the baker's equivalent to a blank canvas -- though he says the quality of the bread has an effect on how well it behaves as art.
"The New Zealand commercial bakers would hate for me to say this, but I've noticed
that in 10 years the bread has become softer and more moist, which means they're using more
fillers to cut costs," he says. "A solid, natural, artisanal loaf has more body and keeps better."
In Hong Kong, he found himself using Garden bread, the stuff of soggy crustless sandwiches and childhood snacks. Picking up a slice, he remarks that it is larger than a typical bread slice in New Zealand. And the quality? He squeezes the bread and chooses his words carefully: "It's not any better."
Food Art Festival
As part of the Food Art Festival, Maurice Bennett will attempt to attain a Guinness World Record for the world's largest mosaic made out of toast, using 6,000 pieces of toast. The festival is at the K11 mall from now until the end of August with various food-themed art exhibitions and events. For details see www.k11concepts.com