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Sculptor Art Grant Serves Up Something to Chew On: Big Macs and Jelly Bean Portraits

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Some might think that Art Grant’s art doesn’t show good taste…but then, they probably haven’t eaten any of it. Consider the mosaic of Ronald Reagan that Grant created six years ago—from 100,000 jelly beans. Or his bust of Nancy Reagan, carved from an 80-pound chunk of Cheddar cheese. Or that 15-foot-long Chihuahua that he once cooked up with 1,000 hot dogs. “My works are meant to be used or eaten,” says Grant, who proudly adds, “It took the public seconds to devour President Reagan, who was delicious.”

Even art that isn’t edible can offer food for thought, Grant figures. That, perhaps, explains his 1982 creation marking National Condom Week—a giant red gonorrhea gonococcus (“700,000 times bigger than life”) carved from a 400-pound block of ice and displayed in San Francisco’s Union Square. “Art is always surprising us with wonderful and new creations,” says Claire Isaacs, cultural affairs director of the San Francisco Arts Commission. “He’s a genie full of magic. No other city has anyone like him.”

That’s for sure. Grant’s past works include a 200-foot replica of the Golden Gate Bridge (built with 47,000 Bold-3 laundry detergent boxes), a 100-foot relief map of California (“I made each county out of different foods…oranges for Orange County, nuts for Marin”) and a “hungry mouth” sculpture for the Arts Commission Festival made with 20,000 cans of donated food. Typically, the latter was dismantled after an hour and distributed to the poor.

“If it wasn’t fun or joyous, I wouldn’t do it,” Grant says of his work. “I don’t take art seriously. Seriousness is a sign of effort and insufficient mastery. And I can’t stand going to museums or art galleries. They’re dull and boring. My museums are parks and zoos and the outdoors.”

Born in San Francisco, where his father was a carpenter and his mother a housewife, Grant now lives alone in a rustic hillside bungalow in Mill Valley. Almost every day he goes to Muir Woods nearby to sketch the redwood trees. Evenings are spent at home in bachelor quarters cluttered with discarded hair dryers, film canisters, broken juice squeezers and other junked items that have been sculpted into faces and animals. “The average American throws away seven pounds of garbage, crap, trash, debris, dreck and scrap every day,” he says. “Getting art material is no problem. I walk down the street, and there it is.” In the living room some 1,000 art books bend the shelves, their pages heavily sketched over by Grant. “I don’t look at the painting that’s there, but what’s not there,” he says. “I create new figures in the empty spaces. I feel I’m improving on Picasso and the others.” Not everyone agrees, of course. “Because he can’t stop drawing,” discloses Isaacs, “he’s been 86’d from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for sketching on objects there with his Magic Marker.”

Since Grant works without any gallery affiliation, he rarely sells his art. “I’m usually commissioned by nonprofit groups who have no budget. I live in voluntary poverty,” he admits. “My life is an art of noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.” To get materials for his large public works, he often asks private companies to donate their products (“Procter & Gamble is my No. 1 patron”). For meal money (his income is $7,000 a year) he teaches a junk-sculpture course part-time at San Francisco’s Lincoln University. “I give all my students A’s. It makes them happier,” he reports.

Grant began his own art career in 1954 after quitting his job as a paint chemist. “That was the year a Jackson Pollack exhibition came to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,” he recalls. “I went to see it and was astonished to discover that what I spilled on the lab floor every day was far, far more interesting that what I saw hanging on the museum’s walls.” After four years at San Francisco State College and a semester-plus at the San Francisco Art Institute, he decided to quit school “when I realized what phonies art professors are. Once you get over the fear of creating, it’s much easier to do it.” Children are great artists, Grant says. “They’re spontaneous, joyful, happy, playful and alive. But as soon as they get to be teenagers, their natural creative ability is lost due to teachers, parents and friends who criticize them.”

Despite his own occasional detractors, Grant now produces about a dozen public artworks a year. His latest proposal: two kissing lips made from one million Hershey’s Kisses. “With each project, I keep thinking bigger,” says the sculptor, who is already looking ahead to 1992 and his planned pièce de résistance. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America, Grant wants to sculpt life-size replicas of the Pinta, the Niña and the Santa Maria from Ivory soap, then float them by barge to Spain. “?nce there,” he says, “they’d be cut into bars of soap and given to the Spaniards as thank-you presents for giving us our great country.”