You Art What You Eat: A Q&A With Nathan Wyburn

Nathan Wyburn, a twenty-five year old Welsh Fine Art graduate, has made an early name for himself in the art world. Both his practice and marketing methods are what one might consider unusual; forgoing paint, Wyburn creates images with food and other household items. His unique approach has earned him viral fame, with wildly popular YouTube videos (his multiple channels have earned 10 million views combined) that eventually led to appearances on several television shows, including Britain’s Got Talent. Today Wyburn works with several large brands like Marmite, Oral B,  Jacobs, and Dominoes, as well as taking on private commissions, as he continues to pursue his bold, iconic pop art. 

Your initial rise to fame was fuelled by Youtube and other social media platforms. The video of you creating your now-infamous Marmite and toast portrait of Simon Cowell was perhaps one of the earlier sensations when it came to viral videos. How did you react to becoming an overnight Internet star?

It was a really strange turn of events for me. I had been uploading regular drawings for a few months and a newspaper headline caught my eye about Simon Cowell. It said, “You either love him or hate him,” which spurred the idea about Marmite! The video was an instant hit and in many ways, changed my life and career path for good. I actually quite enjoy being regarded as ‘toast boy’ or ‘Marmite man’! I’d never get bored of it because I have so much to owe to it.

The advent of new forms of media and entertainment bring new ways to share and promote art — in your case, it’s been notably YouTube and Britain’s Got Talent. Have you faced any backlash or criticism in the art world for achieving fame through such unconventional means?

It is very commercial, I can’t deny that. However, there is an underlying depth and concept to the work:. relating public figures and icons to commercial products and the disposable nature of today’s fast-paced, throw-away society. I enjoy jumping into politics now and again (in a humorous way), such as Donald Trump with Mexican foods or Theresa May with TRESemme shampoo! I’ve not so much had backlash from the artworks, but I guess it may have been snubbed a few times — I’m ok with that, though. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

What is your artistic process in selecting the subject for a portrait and the food or materials you will use in order to create it?

Usually it’s comical. A song lyric from a pop star’s new song, like Eminem singing about ‘mom’s spaghetti’; a surname like Mary Berry with berries; the political stuff I mentioned. Or just a stereotype! For example, when Miley Cyrus began poking her tongue out a lot,  I painted her likeness entirely using my tongue and licking the canvas! It’s not always the medium but the way it’s made, too. It’s a performance.

Does that process differ when the work is commissioned by a company? How do you approach these commercial ventures; are there strict parameters placed on the piece?

It can go both ways. Usually the clients trust my approach and ideas, but now and again they come up with some good ones, too! I can get too caught up in what I think will work and so can they — we always get there in the end and I’ve not had any complaints just yet!

What’s your favorite material to work with? Is there one you haven’t yet explored but are itching to try?

I love the really foodie-looking ones like the toast, baked beans, and pizza! Chocolate and jams always smell amazing — not so much things like cat food, however! I enjoy experimenting with things like painting with my feet and lipstick on my lips!

I once tried making art in the snow but over the process it was melting, etc., so I didn’t quite master that — maybe next time! I have a huge list of unusual things I’d like to try!

Your work is often created using perishable products; what steps do you take to ensure that they will last, or that non-adhesive materials—like beans, for instance—remain in place on a vertical surface? Does your work have a ‘shelf life’?

I like that they are perishable — it’s part of the process and the comment on today’s fast-paced, throw-away culture. These things aren’t expensive, either, so it fitted perfectly when I first started out in university. I’d be paying £1 or so for bread or spreads, and others would be spending ten times that on paints. The art lives on in the photography and videos. This way I’m also using painting, sculpture in some forms, photography, and video! I love it all.

Which artists would you identify as having inspired you or informed your own work in some way?

Certainly Warhol — we share that obsession with pop culture and portraiture. Chuck Close helped me learn about scale and the basics of drawing, Muniz for his unusual materials, and also people like Emin and Hurst for just thinking outside the box.

Which project of yours do you think has been the most ambitious undertaking?

I once spent 10 days in a glass box in Helsinki, Finland. That was making live ketchup art of fans of the brand’s ketchup! They’d send in photos and selfies and I’d have to make them and put them on display around in the container. I made 45 or so over the 10 days. It was intense, but I loved it!

You’re an ambassador for the anti-bullying charity Bullies Out. How does your work as an artist inform your activism and vice versa? And how have your own personal experiences led you to promoting this cause?

Yes, I have a great passion for helping others because of the experiences I went through myself. Because of my art, I believe in myself and I just want to give something back. The artwork makes me confident and strong enough to do that.

What has been the greatest honour of your career?

There have been a few. My YouTube, without a doubt; reaching the finals of Britain’s Got Talent, making the full front page of the UK’s most prestigious newspaper The Guardian; finding out that schools now study my art as part of the curriculum here in Wales; and also the release of my first book, Not That Kind Of Art. Oh, Prince Charles also has one of my pieces, too — that’s pretty cool!

What are you currently working on?

I have a million things on the go — I’m really enjoying playing with glitter at the moment, also coffee is a great one. I’m hopefully about to start working on my second book and a documentary. I never reveal my ideas until I do that, but you’ll just have to stay tuned! Follow me on all social media channels @NathanWyburnArt.

All photographs are courtesy of the artist.