'15 Minutes of Fame' Following Warhol's Path

California boy finds pot of gold in Campbell's soup-can art

THIS may come as a shock to members of the art community, but the "next Andy Warhol" is just 11 years old and lives in San Juan Bautista, Calif.

Matthew Balestrieri is his name, and he is the winner of a contest sponsored by the Campbell's Soup Company to find the most imaginative rendering of its red-and-white soup can made famous by the pop icon Warhol.

OK, so this child may not turn out to be the next Warhol, but he has already experienced his "15 minutes of fame," to quote the artist.

In fact, Warhol would probably have loved the soup company's publicity stunt. His counterculture lifestyle and shock of white hair topping a stick-figure body were a perfect draw for the media. His original painting of the can in 1962 helped the company climb to the top of the soup market. It now sells $2.5 billion to $3 billion of soup a year.

"This is the kind of thing that the media is going to pick up on," says Robert Goldsborough, corporate-projects editor of Advertising Age magazine. "So I think it is smart business for corporations such as Campbell's to continue devising these types of product-related contests."

Lagging sales were not the motivating factor behind the campaign, Campbell's spokesman Kevin Lowery explains. In fact, he says, sales have increased 2.5 percent since the company changed its label in April 1994. The smile in the center of the can was replaced by a picture of soup in the can.

"When we even think of changing the label, it creates a stir," he says.

Matthew's art work - which depicts four Egyptian scenes involving the can and spells out words on the label in hieroglyphics - was selected over three other finalists' presentations at a press conference held Wednesday at New York's Whitney Museum of Art. The Camden, N.J.,-based soup company flew in contestants and judges for the event, which included the dramatic envelope opening: "And the next Andy Warhol is...."

JUDGING the event were contemporary pop artist Peter Max, American Artist magazine editor Stephen Doherty, and Warhol's brother, artist Paul Warhola.

"Andy would have been excited by Matthew's piece because he loved working with younger artists," says Mr. Warhola, adding that he and his brother used to eat Campbell's Soup "all the time" as children. In fact, the company claims Warhol consumed its famous tomato soup every day for 20 years.

The contest winner not only receives the lofty distinction of being mentioned in the same sentence as Warhol but also gets a pile of loot - $16,000 - from Campbell's for his efforts. "I want to use some of the money to go to Hawaii," the affable youngster says.

Matthew's entry shows ancient Egyptians lifting, cooking, and eating from the soup can. In the middle of the tablet, which is mounted on a piece of foam, hieroglyphics read: "Verily, I have brought to thee a soup of Gold, rejoice thou in it, Umm, Umm."

Even though hieroglyphic is one of the few methods of writing not offered by the California school system, Matthew says learning it has come in handy.

"My brother and I used to write messages to each other in hieroglyphics so our parents couldn't read them," admits the precocious artist.

He says he finished the tablet in three weeks. And, he insists, the only help he got from his parents was his father cutting the foam. Frank Balestrieri explains that Matthew didn't acquire his artistic talent at school because it no longer offers art classes. "It's really a shame that schools across the country are dropping art. I am glad that Campbell's is supporting the field," he says.

For the last 22 years, Campbell's has sponsored a program called "Labels for Education," Lowery adds. Through the program, the soup company doles out $4.5 million each year to United States schools for educational supplies such as encyclopedias and art equipment.

Other submissions on display at the awards ceremony were a Chevy Cavalier painted as a soup can, a wedding dress made from labels, and a Mona Lisa with three-dimensional arms cradling a can. Lowery says museums have already contacted him about exhibiting the works.

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