By Dan Jewel
October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

Artist Peter Anton was a man with a plan—and a very large melon. So armed, he trudged from gallery to gallery in Manhattan, searching for a kindred spirit: someone who shared his vision, someone who, in short, believed in really, really big fake food. “I was walking around with this huge cantaloupe, and hundreds of doors were slammed in my face,” he says. “Some people would not even open the door.”

That was then, in the early 1990s. Now, no one in the art world would dare mock Anton’s melons, diss his 20-inch cucumbers or be rude to his rutabagas. A cereal box entitled Breakfast with Bill was given to the President by an F.O.B. And by art-market standards, his latest creations—37 larger-than-life chocolates priced at $28,000 apiece—are selling like hotcakes (up to eight a year). “His work is witty, funny, transformative,” says Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who likens Anton, 38, to modern masters such as Jasper Johns. “You look at it and laugh, and then look at it again and think.”

For Anton, who spends a labor-intensive month crafting each wire-clay-and-resin 4-ft.-by-3-ft. chocolate in the basement of his Guilford, Conn., home, the payoff is delicious. “I love the way people react,” he says. “They become childlike and happy. It seems to make them feel good, the way real chocolate does.”

Anton’s own childhood was somewhat bittersweet. His father, Nicholas, died when Peter was 9, leaving his mother, Kaliopi, a home-maker who worked odd jobs, to raise her seven children alone in New Haven. On weekends and after school, Peter would spend hours wandering around local museums and drawing in parks. Soon he was winning almost every school art contest. Sadly, he says with a laugh, “I have nothing to show from all those years. The teachers would always take my artwork home with them.”

After leaving high school in his senior year, he and his companion of 19 years, Bob Schnabel, 37, opened a mail-order novelty-gag company, offering, says Anton, “fake dog doo, vomit and the like.” In the late ’80s his work became more appetizing. “Food is something we all have in common,” he says of his decision to sculpt snacks. “It unites us in so many ways.” In 1993 he made his first sale, “Tea Party,” a 3-ft. pile of dirty dishes and half-eaten desserts, for $1,000. Soon after, a Washington, D.C., lawyer purchased a plaster-and-metal red pepper for $900 and sent her limo to pick it up. “I’ll never forget that one,” says Anton. “This image of that red pepper all alone in the backseat, going to a new home with a driver, will always be there.”

In 1994 Soho gallery owner Bruce R. Lewin began to show Anton’s work. Now his chocolate-box window display is a landmark in the superhip hood. When models walk by, “they scrunch up their faces and say, ‘Eeeeww,’ ” says the artist, “as if by just looking at it they’ll gain weight.”

Dan Jewel

Anne Longley in New York City