Artist whose career is toast

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Maurice Bennett poses with his toast-made portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Photo: CFP 

His moniker might imply a connection with one of the 20th century's greatest artists, but the "Picasso of toast" Maurice Bennett uses a very different canvas to that of the Catalan-born genius. Bennett, now in his 60s, works solely in the medium of grilled bread and even has the title "The Toastman" on his business card.

Born in Paeroa, New Zealand, Bennett is in Shanghai for the second time for a week starting from July 19, after his first trip five years ago. On this occasion he came to make a new piece, a portrait of the American film star Marilyn Monroe to be created and displayed inside the shopping mall Xintiandi Style, located in Xintiandi. "I'm used to finishing my works of art alone in my studio without any audience!" Bennett told the Global Times.

Bigger than Mona Lisa

Made up of more than 6,000 pieces of colored or toasted bread, the facial image of the tragic movie legend is the largest he has ever made. Although the toast portrait of the Mona Lisa that Bennett brought to Hong Kong last year was almost the same size, visitors in Shanghai will be able to witness for themselves how such a large piece of toast art is actually created.

Bennett bakes or colors all of the pieces of toast he needs and brings them directly from New Zealand. On the first floor of the shop, Bennett worked alongside two assistants bringing in the boxes of toast, and who help to build a collage out of them and then glue the pieces onto a large billboard so that the finished piece can be mounted on a wall. Bennett uses a kind of chemical compound in order to keep moisture out of the surface of the bread so that the artwork can "remain forever," in his own words.

Transporting the toast for the Monroe portrait wasn't an easy job, especially when some pieces were broken due to careless handling during the journey. "I really don't like having to rearrange a jigsaw puzzle!" said Bennett while checking the broken pieces of bread.

As a country boy with a great interest in art, Bennett was lucky to have parents who supported his early talent. With dreams of being an architect, Bennett majored in engineering in college. After earning the Certificate in Civil Engineering from the former Auckland Technical Institute, Bennett pursued his artistic dreams by enrolling on a two-year Bachelor of Architecture course at Auckland University. "I used to think that being clever was the most important attribute to being a successful architect. But then I realized that hard work is more crucial."

Maurice Bennett in the process of creating the portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Photo: Jiang Zhuo'er/GT 

Shopping around

Bennett then traveled throughout the US and Europe, visiting museums and art galleries. Yet after he came back to New Zealand, Bennett's life deviated from the artistic path due to a lack of money. He found a job at a local supermarket to make a living. Surprisingly, retail work appealed to him and in a very short time he became grocery manager for the Papakura New World Supermarket. Then Bennett started his own business with his wife Carolyn and purchased the even larger Island Bay New World Supermarket. "I used to get the toast I needed for my art from my own supermarket," he said.

In the 1980s, Bennett regained his passion for art. Having tried painting, sculpture, and installation works, he finally settled on "toast."

"Once I was having a barbecue with my family and I was reading a magazine which showed some collage works of a famous American artist, and the idea just came into my mind: why not use toasted bread?"

For 10 years, Bennett has stuck to his idea of his paintbrush being a "flame." His portraits to date include the Mona Lisa, US President Barack Obama, New Zealand's Prime Minster John Keys, and the rugby legend Jonah Lomu. His works have also appeared on TV shows including Ripley's Believe It or Not in the US, Amazing Stories in Japan, and The Holmes Show and Campbell Live in New Zealand.

In late 2009, Bennett sold his Island Bay New World and became a full-time artist working with toast. "At first it was my hobby while I wasn't at work, and now that I am retired, it has become my retirement hobby," said Bennett.

Apart from creating toast portraits with paints, Bennett also makes metal molds on which to imprint certain patterns on the toast creating almost bas-relief works of art with three-dimensional images.

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