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July 31, 2011

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Toast of the town

A lot of strange things are used to make art these days, from trash to toast, and one New Zealander is baking, slicing and painting tiny pixels of toast in billboard-size mosaic portraits.

One of the most spectacular is a "toast art portrait" of Marilyn Monroe made with 6,000 pieces of toast. It has been progressively assembled and displayed in the lobby of the Xintiandi Style Mall shopping hub.

"For me, anything can become art, and over many years I have created artworks comprised of thousands of pieces of precisely burned toast," said baker and artist Maurice Bennett, known as the Picasso of Toast. For years he ran a supermarket, bought cheap bread and used the market's ovens to produce his various shades of toast.

The work is laborious and Bennett needs several assistants to assemble the work. "For me this is never boring, rather relaxing and rewarding," he said.

The pieces are put together like a puzzle of various geometric shapes.

Bennett uses metal stencils and cutters to produce portraits, abstract art, and pieces inspired by New Zealand's indigenous Maori culture. Many works are unpainted, using various shades of tan, amber, brown and darkly burned toast.

His most famous are portraits of Barack Obama, Elvis Presley and the Mona Lisa. He calls them his "trademark Toast Art Portraits."

"I chose Marilyn here because she is a legendary movie star, an enduring sex symbol and a fashion template. She is perfect fit with the chic and innovative fashion in Xintiandi Style Mall. Both Marilyn and the mall set new standards for style and redefined what is hot and what is cool," he said.

For the Marilyn work, he took Andy Warhol's famous work, then reshaped and reinterpreted it, adding dashes of color.

Born in Paeroa on New Zealand's North Island in the late 1950s, Bennett spent his youth moving around mostly rural townships with his family. He studied civil engineering at the Auckland Technical Institute and then architecture at Auckland University.

Always interested in art, he traveled widely throughout the United States and Europe, visiting museums and galleries and absorbing both traditional and off-beat styles.

"I was so passionate and wayward when I was a young man," he said. "But I seemed to wake up at the age of 29 and realized that I needed to feed myself."

He first got a job packing shelves in his parents' supermarket. He ran it for years until selling it last year and devoting himself to his art.

He started experimenting with toast art in 1999 and also experimented with art made from burned objects.

"The advantage of owning a supermarket is that I could buy bread at a cheaper price and had a large oven to make the toast myself," he said.

Bennett remembers his first piece of toast art was made outdoors. He returned the next day and found that seagulls were pecking at it and eating it on the ground.

Then he started to use preservatives, anti-fungal and water-proofing materials to protect his works.

"You can hang it in your apartment as decorative art - it's purely ecological and non-polluting."

Bennett has made portraits of big rugby stars for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand to be held in September and October.


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