For Plano resident Harry Kalenberg, a bowl of popcorn is much more than just a movie theater staple – it’s a conglomeration of characters just waiting to be brought to life.
Kalenberg has a unique hobby – with a felt-tipped marker, he paints faces on popcorn and other snack foods.
“I was sitting one night eating popcorn with my wife, and I picked up a piece and said ‘Oh my goodness, there’s a gorilla right there,’” Kalenberg said. “My wife told me to leave her alone and stop playing with my food. I took out my ballpoint pen and started painting what I saw. The gorilla was sitting there with his hands behind his back – all it needed was for me to bring it to life.”
What started with that gorilla-shaped kernel 25 years ago has led to his art being featured in museums, including Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
“At first I didn’t believe it [when Ripley’s called],” Kalenberg said. “But after we spoke for awhile it made sense. I was impressed. Not many people have their art at Ripley’s. … They bought about 40 pieces that are in museums all over the world.”
While an average bag of popcorn may produce about 10 paintings, Kalenberg insists he doesn’t go searching for his art.
“I don’t look for it, it’s just there,” he said. “I just pick up a kernel and know what’s going to be on there. Many times I see something and think maybe there’s something else there, and come back to it. As soon as I pick it up, I know exactly what it is. It would take me about six hours to eat a bowl of popcorn with my wife and son. Sometimes I think I’m eating my profit.”
Among Kalenberg’s popcorn paintings are portraits of Elvis, a fortune teller, Mickey Mouse and the kings of the round table. After completing a painting, Kalenberg puts the kernel on a toothpick and dips it in polyurethane to preserve it. Some kernels are arranged into scenes, complete with miniature furniture and props.
“They’re all one of a kind,” he said. “There are no two kernels that look alike; they’re like snowflakes.”
In recent months, Kalenberg started experimenting with other snack foods, such as Doritos, rice cakes and Cosmos Creations, a type of corn puff sold at Central Market.
“They have awesome shapes,” he said of the Cosmos. “I see so many things in those and have painted so many items; George Washington, Santa Claus and Abraham Lincoln.”
And Kalenberg’s artwork, which he used to sell for $50-$300 a pop, is not the only creative gene in his body. In 1984, he started Clear Expressions, an acrylics company he runs today.
“We do anything you can do in acrylic,” he said. “I do all the acrylics for Sam Moon stores. Boxes, displays, jewelry … I’ve been doing that for over 10 years. It takes me close to four months to put a whole store together.”
Other Clear Expressions clients include Raytheon, American Airlines, Texas Instruments and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Occasionally, Kalenberg’s acrylic expertise even compliments his food art, as he confines some of his favorite artwork in acrylic cases to keep on display.
And while he may not be The Most Interesting Man in the World, Kalenberg is certainly among the most interesting people in Plano.
“It’s relaxation for me,” he said. “Sometimes I go to the movies, and as a joke, I take a pen light out of my pocket and look at [the popcorn] while I’m eating it.”