NEW LONDON — For sculptor Peter Anton, food is a portal to celebratory memories and a kind of “sensory snapshot” that connects us to emotions ranging from happiness to obsession.
“We use sweets to celebrate and we also use them for comfort when we’re depressed and we reward ourselves with sweets,” said Anton, who creates giant renditions of ice cream cones, cakes and confections. “As an artist, I love color and textures and you can’t top a colorful dessert.”
In “Sweet Dreams: Confectionery Sculpture,” at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, Anton will show 35 of his outsized, hyperrealistic works, including several pieces he created specifically for the exhibition. The show opens this Saturday, July 18, and will run through October 18.
Anton’s work includes an immense box of mixed doughnuts — powdered, jelly, glazed with jimmies, chocolate frosted, honey glazed — with shadows of icing and sugar where a few once rested. Huge, colorful layer cakes, with slices gone, sit atop cake pedestals. Three stacked doughnuts create a pillar topped with a cherry and whipped cream. Massive samplers hold individually decorated chocolates each in its own pleated paper holder.
Anton said that as a child he created sculptures out of food using empty containers and kitchen scraps, but that he never planned to be an artist.
“I was always assembling things and making my own toys, making structures and building things. I liked different materials and I liked thinking about it,” he said. “I never went to art school because I didn’t want to be an artist. I knew a lot of artists and they were always depressed and complaining and always miserable because they couldn’t get a gallery or sell their work. It was really very dark, I wasn’t interested, so I put it out of my head.”
Anton studied filmmaking at University of Bridgeport and later taught himself how to work with materials and processes, partly because no one was teaching what he wanted to know.
“There were no manuals or books. I could never find out how to make things look real so I had to develop all of it on my own,” he said.
He started searching for materials at hardware stores and moved on to art supply shops.
“Then I started to find out about resins and how to use them and polyurethane,” he said. “I started learning how to manipulate all the different kinds of resins and temperatures. Just on and on experimenting, that’s how I started.”
Some experiments worked, others didn’t.
“Once, I was making a cherry danish. It was when I was first starting and I turned around and I smelled smoke and the cherry danish exploded,” he said. “It was on fire, don’t ask me how it happened. It was on fire, smoke was coming out of the cherry section. That was a learning thing.”
Anton evolved his methods, sculpting with wood, metal, plaster, resin and oil and acrylic paints.
“With a lot of my work you have to be a bit of an engineer to make them work, to make them physically strong enough to be carried and to be shipped. There are a lot of technical things that people never think about,” he said.
The size of memories
Anton said he started experimenting with scale because he felt food didn’t get enough respect, especially in the art world.
“I wanted to immortalize it. Make it monumental. Make it important. Make it larger than life,” he said. “So, it’s bigger than standard food, so it would command attention and force people to think about their relationships with food.”
He said he noticed early on that when viewers were in front of a giant ice cream cone, for example, they were transformed “instantly to their childhood or their earliest memories.”
“I noticed people started telling me their personal stories, right from my first art exhibition. I’ve heard hundreds of them, how they would spend their summer somewhere and their grandfather would always stop the ice cream truck. A lot of people tear up,” he said. “They have these deep emotional ties to certain foods especially at certain times of the year.”
Anton explained that food has the power to evoke sensory memories and connections with places and people.
“It’s like a catalyst, it’s like hypnosis. It just pulls you in and brings you way back rapidly and you can see it on people’s faces by the way they talk and the things they say,” he said. “It’s our first experience and it’s tied to our family, our friends, different holidays, all the really important stuff of life.”
“When I started, I approached galleries in Manhattan and at the time I was making giant fruit, and I would bring giant sliced cantaloupe,” he said. “Doors would slam in my face and galleries would say nobody wants to buy food sculpture, why don’t you be a serious artist.”
Then, about 26 years ago, a gallery decided to give Anton a show.
“He said I could have a wall, so I did a wall of fruits and vegetables and then I had a solo exhibition and that’s how it started,” Anton said. “A businessman from Toronto bought the first piece — I’ll never forget this — he bought a cantaloupe. He was staring at it and he was very intrigued. He said to me, ‘I hate cantaloupes, I can’t stand them. I never eat them, they’re disgusting, but I have to have this piece, there’s something about it.’ I thought that was very interesting.”
Anton surrounds himself with the real food he’s sculpting so that he can study it. He researches the history of the food and sometimes creates the edible version.
“I like reading the recipe and sometimes making the actual dessert because there are clues on how to make the sculpture look real and how to get the look right,” he said.
For a collector who wanted a sculpture of chocolate-dipped orange peels, Anton ordered a selection from various chocolatiers, but the product was over-candied and very dark, and the orange peel was completely covered.
“So I got a recipe. I got oranges. I peeled them. I candied the peels by boiling them in sugar and then I dipped them in chocolate,” he said. “The whole experience taught me how to calculate the length and the width for each individual orange peel before the chocolate was applied. I learned the translucency of the orange and the different colors and what happens to pores when the sugar is boiled.”
An obsession with sugar
In the show, a giant smashed piece of cake with neon pink icing and sprinkles hurtles toward the floor in “Sugar Madness Pink Confetti Cake.” In “Cherry Pie, a gargantuan slice of pie splatters crust, cherries and red cherry juice across the wall as though thrown by an invisible hand.
“I was thinking about people’s absolute obsession with sugar and how crazed they become,” said Anton about several pieces that he made for “Sugatarium,” an exhibition in New York City in which Anton converted the gallery into an asylum with hospital beds.
“I hear stories all the time, it’s almost like I’m a sugar psychiatrist about how people really eat and how they can’t control themselves,” he said. “I was trying to show the crazy, the passion, the out of control, the almost violent obsession to get some sugar, to get some sweets.”
He will also show a sculpture of a five-foot-high smashed chocolate squirrel as well as a grouping of shattered sweetly-colored macarons.
“When I first started, it was always food. As an artist I loved the colors and the textures, there were so many opportunities,” he said. “I never wanted to do art that was dark. A lot of the artwork back then and even today is very heavy and dark. I always felt I wanted to make something that would have good energy and make people feel good inside and happy, that was very important to me.”
Anton said he loves chocolates and enjoys one every night.
“That was my first candy sculpture,” he said. “I was lying in bed and I was eating chocolates and I said, ‘This would make a great sculpture.’”
The Lyman Allyn Art Museum will hold a virtual opening reception on July 24 from 6 to 7 p.m. The museum is offering free admission through Labor Day. For more information call 860.443.2545.