Ben Woolhead pops into Cardiff city centre, takes a look at an exhibition of work by a fella you may know as ‘the guy who makes pictures of people out of food’, likes what he sees and speaks to Nathan Wyburn, the food people picture guy in question, to find out more.
Growing up, many of us were constantly being told not to play with our food. Thankfully, Nathan Wyburn wasn’t – or if he was, he wasn’t listening. The Ebbw Vale-born pop artist has forged a career out of it.
When a portrait of Simon Cowell painted in Marmite on toast went viral on social media in 2010, the then 20-year-old fine art student found himself appearing on Blue Peter. A year later and his skills wowed Britain’s Got Talent judges Michael McIntyre, Amanda Holden and Michael Hasselhoff, as well as the programme’s millions of viewers. He’s since gone on to create countless portraits using an array of non-traditional media, undertaken a host of eyecatching commercial commissions and received glowing reviews from many of his celebrity subjects. Now Wyburn’s hosting an exhibition of his work in Morgan Quarter Arcade in the heart of Cardiff.
“I think they approached me to help encourage people back into the arcades after such a difficult time”, he explains. “Cardiff’s arcades are so beautiful, and to see empty units is just heartbreaking. Art has been such a therapy and escapism for people during the pandemic, so it just seemed the perfect fit. To have such a big, open, safe space for people to view my work, and chat with me about it, is an honour.”
One of his most recognisable recent pieces – a digital collage of a face-masked NHS worker composed of tiny portraits of real NHS staff members that has been exhibited outside every health site in Wales – shows that in our troubled times art can be even more than a cathartic outlet for personal expression; it can be a way of paying tribute and giving thanks too. “It felt great to put the everyday hero up there on the same level as our icons and idols, who usually are the focus of my work.”
Including that particular piece in the exhibition may have been a no-brainer, and some of his works couldn’t have been accommodated even within the capacious temporary gallery (his 18-metre-long portrait of Sir Tom Jones, for example, created using soil on the lawn at Cardiff Castle in honour of the singer’s 80th birthday). Nevertheless, narrowing down a representative selection of his work must have been a headache.
“I just wanted to display a good mix of who I am and what I do,” he says. “The fun food stuff, the pop culture references and the humour, plus the more meaningful pieces.” So it is that images of Greta Thunberg and George Floyd hang alongside mischievous, playful portraits of Mariah Carey on a pizza, Little Mix’s Perrie Edwards using peri peri sauce and Ed Sheeran created out of clippings of Wyburn’s own hair.
On his distinctive use of innovative media, Wyburn admits that his favourite is “usually the sweet stuff”: “I once used thousands of Smarties to make Albert Einstein!” By contrast, the most challenging is snow: “Obviously it’s melting and changing with a mind of its own, so making art in it is always a race against time.” The digital collage technique, which he’d used on several occasions before the NHS Thank You portrait, is different again: “I don’t get to be as free – it’s very constructed and focused on colours and layering rather than brushstrokes or mark making.”
Marmite was the natural medium for his portrait of Boris Johnson, while the image of Donald Trump, a spectre from another time, looms large on a canvas constructed of newspaper front pages reporting the Capitol Building insurrection in January. A committed LGBT+ activist, Wyburn has chosen to include in the exhibition pictures of Gareth Thomas and Elton John painted in fake blood to raise awareness of AIDS charities, and of actor Elliot Page on a transgender pride flag. Most recently, he used his fists to create a powerful portrait of Josh Ormrod, a bisexual student beaten up in a homophobic attack in Liverpool. Does he see himself as a political artist? “I’m unsure. I often make art about global issues and politics. However, I think art itself should ignite a conversation. So if you’re viewing a piece of work and differ in your opinion to the person next to you, talk about it. Maybe you’ll learn something – if you’re willing to, that is.”
As someone who regularly works with school groups, Wyburn spends much of his time thinking about learning and teaching. The key lesson he can pass on to pupils, he suggests, is that “art can be made with anything: soil from your garden, an old bottle of ketchup, an unwanted lipstick … this breaks down the barrier of art snobbery and financially allows every single child to feel they have access to making art. That’s so important to me.”
And what does he love most about these art class sessions? “Making them think outside the box. Children are so expressive and open to ideas. Society and often sadly adults drum that out of them. I hate that!” So, kids, next time your mum or dad tells you to stop mucking about with your spaghetti hoops, ignore them.
Nathan’s exhibition in Morgan Quarter Arcade runs until the end of July. Proceeds from the sale of his book 2020 Diary Of An Artist: Nathan Wyburn go to the Cardiff & Vale Health Board’s charity.
words BEN WOOLHEAD
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