When Harry Meets Salty

The Popcorn Pageantry of Harry Kalenberg

By: Debra Goldie Jones | 

eat popcorn so fast I only stop to breathe when the bowl is empty. Not so, however, when Harry meets salty. Harry Kalenberg savors the contour of each kernel and the protrusion of every puff.

Kalenberg with popcorn Mickey Mouse

Kalenberg makes Pop Art, artistically painted figures on the face of a favorite snack. He’s so good and so prolific his work appears in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! books and museums around the country.

I must admit I initially found the idea a bit camp, as in summer camp. But my visit with Kalenberg and his charming wife Esther convinced me this is not a corny subject.

As we sat down to conversation, they showed me a few of the more elaborate assemblages. My favorite, Kings Table, features four jolly monarchs chatting it up while a toy knight stands guard.

Popcorn Fortune Teller

In another tableau, a fortuneteller faces her crystal ball, divining the fate of our futures. After that, no psychic was needed to reveal Kalenberg’s keen artistic talent.

We moved to the studio, where I was treated to a pop quiz.

“Do you know who this is?” Kalenberg asked me.

“I don’t,” I admitted.

“Barbara Bush,” he said.

Suddenly I see the confident jut of a chin, the crown of coiffed colorless hair, and the iconic string of pearls above a stately Brahmin bosom.

It is indeed Barbara Bush, in popped-corn form. I wondered if Millie the Dog was on a nearby tray and impaled on a toothpick pike along with the dozens of other popped stars.

From former presidents to famous celebs, I spied Dolly, Elvis, Groucho, and Grover (or was it Elmo?), Kissinger, Nixon, and Honest Abe. I was becoming quite the discerning pop-paparazzi.

I wondered if the artist glues or alters the popcorn in any way. Kalenberg said 99% of the figures are the original piece; only 1% are altered with a sander or carving tool.

Hull of A Hobby

Kalenberg is no stranger to small tasks: He worked as a jeweler in the New York diamond district and later in Dallas. Then, with Esther, who is a product design scout, he built an acrylic manufacturing business making custom cases and displays for clients from museums to millionaires. His stunning contemporary Lucite table bases were so coveted, his wife would brag she married a plastic surgeon. Today his creative, puffed corn contrivances are worthy of their own acrylic boxes and valued by collectors worldwide.

And I’m just wild about Kalenberg’s ethereal portraits. A self-taught photographer, he shoots extreme close-ups, enlarges the print to 24” x 36”, and showcases them in an acrylic shadow box. Thus, the image becomes a second, distinct work of art—a unique transformation of the original, which, lest we forget, began as just a piece of ordinary popcorn!

Painted mini mermaid

For the painted mini-mermaid resting on a rock reading a book, Kalenberg created the illusion of water by heating a strip of acrylic then stretching it behind her to mimic bubbles. In the poster-size blowup, her twinkly eyes and upturned mouth give the sea creature the allure of an actual animated character.

Kalenberg joked that he broke all the rules of parental guidance and basic etiquette to get to where he is today. “It’s rude to stare” didn’t work because he loved studying faces. “Don’t play with your food”—well, we know how that turned out. And “always tell the truth” would deprive us of his fascinating optical illusions and visual slights of hand.

You can see more of his whimsical work at popart-too.com. I guarantee you’ll never look at popcorn the same way again.

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