Philly Artist Tastes The Rainbow And Saves The Wrappers : The Salt Philly-based artist Sean Brown transforms the refuse from Skittles, Tootsie Pops, Starburst, Mamba — and whatever other candy he can get his hands on — into works of art.
NPR logo Philly Artist Tastes The Rainbow And Saves The Wrappers

Philly Artist Tastes The Rainbow And Saves The Wrappers

Sean Brown knows his way around a candy shop.

"My candy knowledge is pretty crazy," he says. "Put me up against anyone in a candy battle — and I'll beat them."

Philly-based artist Sean Brown transforms the refuse from candy wrappers into art. Veronica Perez hide caption

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Veronica Perez

Philly-based artist Sean Brown transforms the refuse from candy wrappers into art.

Veronica Perez

But Brown is less interested in the candy than the wrappers. For the past five years, this Philly-based artist and (full disclosure!) former neighbor of mine, has been transforming the refuse from Skittles, Tootsie Pops, Starburst, Mamba — and whatever other candy he can get his hands on — into works of art.

Many of the pieces celebrate famous individuals or pay homage to the artists who inspire him. He's done Questlove in Tootsie Pops and Warhol's "Marilyn" in Tootsie Pops, Mamba, Starburst and Andes Creme de Menthe Thins.

Brown, who's been working as an artist since graduating from the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2007, presents his work in art shows primarily in the Philadelphia and New York areas. His next show is this Sunday at MAD Gallery in New York.

He's sold over 100 of his candy wrapper works, which ranged in price from $50 for a simple depiction of a banana to $5,000 for a detailed remake of a Gustav Klimt work.

His hues are limited by his candy wrapper palette — which turns out to be no limitation at all.

"I Saw the Figure 5 in Starburst." Starburst wrappers, acrylic and ink on canvas. 2011. Courtesy of Sean Brown hide caption

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Courtesy of Sean Brown

"I Saw the Figure 5 in Starburst." Starburst wrappers, acrylic and ink on canvas. 2011.

Courtesy of Sean Brown

"I had always liked taking candy wrappers off as neatly as possible, and I always liked to keep them as flat as possible," Brown says. "One day I was sitting with a friend and eating a bunch of candy and I looked at the pile of trash and I thought, 'I'm going to use this.'... I started putting them on canvasses."

Brown's first candy wrapper piece was a take on the painting "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" by Charles Demuth. Then he moved on to Warhol and Lichtenstein.

"The paintings that I liked, I would recreate but with candy wrappers," Brown says.

At Brown's studio in Philadelphia, he stores candy wrappers by kind and color in Ziploc bags. Courtesy of Sean Brown hide caption

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Courtesy of Sean Brown

At Brown's studio in Philadelphia, he stores candy wrappers by kind and color in Ziploc bags.

Courtesy of Sean Brown

At Brown's art shows, he lays out a pile of candy along with a bucket that says, "Enjoy the candy! (I want your wrapper)."

These days, he says, "I mostly like other people to eat [the candy]. I'm trying to save myself the diabetes." He gets a lot of wrappers from donations through word of mouth. "People get excited about the idea," he says.

Tootsie Roll has also sent him boxes of candy and rolls of uncut wrappers.

"Nat Geo Too." Tootsie Pop, Tootsie Roll Frooties, Mamba, Starburst, Now and Later and Andes Creme de Menthe Thins wrappers with gold leaf and ink on wood. 2015. Courtesy of Sean Brown hide caption

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Courtesy of Sean Brown

"Nat Geo Too." Tootsie Pop, Tootsie Roll Frooties, Mamba, Starburst, Now and Later and Andes Creme de Menthe Thins wrappers with gold leaf and ink on wood. 2015.

Courtesy of Sean Brown

Brown describes the Starburst color palette as grand.

"Starburst has 11 different shades of red" and also offers good flesh tones, he explains. "Mamba actually also has really good flesh tones. I think I like them better than Starburst. They're softer and creamier."

Brown is now working on a series he calls Mary POPpuns where — you guessed it — all the works involve puns. He's already completed the series's title piece, which relies heavily on lollipop wrappers.

"Mary POPpuns." Tootsie Pop, Tootsie Roll Frooties and Dum Dum wrappers with acrylic and ink on wood. 2016. Courtesy of Sean Brown hide caption

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Courtesy of Sean Brown

"Mary POPpuns." Tootsie Pop, Tootsie Roll Frooties and Dum Dum wrappers with acrylic and ink on wood. 2016.

Courtesy of Sean Brown

Brown envisions candy wrappers will be a part of his art for years to come. "Candy is not going anywhere and they are always going to come out with new flavors and new colors. And [candy] offers that piece of nostalgia for some people."

"Mary Jane's Bones & Bows." Mary Jane wrappers with ink and acrylic screen print on canvas. Artwork by Sean Brown. 2012. Carolyn Beans hide caption

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Carolyn Beans

"Mary Jane's Bones & Bows." Mary Jane wrappers with ink and acrylic screen print on canvas. Artwork by Sean Brown. 2012.

Carolyn Beans

Nostalgia is exactly what prompted my brother to buy me this piece, one of 99 bananas that make up a Warhol-inspired series.

My grandmother kept a cabinet full of candy within easy reach of her grandkids. I always went for the Mary Janes. But I never thought to save the wrappers.