BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS
William Davies King has created his Tree of Life, a massive mural-like work of art, from something he collected.
2,300 cereal boxes.
“Many people asked me, ‘Did you eat all that cereal?’ ” Dr. King, a UCSB distinguished professor of theater and dance, told the News-Press, chuckling. “I’ve been collecting those boxes for about 39 years, and there are 2,300 boxes.
“If you do the math, it’s about 60 boxes a year. It isn’t a huge amount of cereal (for consumption),” said. Dr. King, 63, who has collected everything from the Quaker Oats brand Life to Kellogg’s Rice Krispies.
In late June, the Santa Barbara resident took the cereal boxes from his storage unit. His daughters Ruthie and Eva King — 30 and 26 respectively (they helped him eat the cereals over the years) — and he arranged the flattened boxes on the floor of a UCSB dance studio during a seven-hour art event.
About 200 spectators came throughout the day, Dr. King said.
“People wandered in and out,” he said. “Some people discovered it by chance.”
Spectators found they could wander through the tree by following a path lined by the Breakfast of Champions — Wheaties. Dr. King said the General Mills brand essentially became a vine going through the tree.
The professor said he envisioned the tree to be a giant mural.
“You have a vision, and once you start to make it, the materials and the space tell you what it should be,” he said. “That was exactly the experience of this work.”
He said one of the spectators compared the work to a stained glass window, something he hadn’t imagined as a description. “But I think that is exactly right, and the way the light (from the studio’s big windows) was glaring off it enhanced that idea.”
The collector created the tree’s trunk from his 113 Life cereal boxes and used the General Mills brand Cocoa Puffs and other chocolate cereals for the bark.
The tree scene extends into flowers, resulting from colorful cereal boxes.
“For instance, (Kellogg’s) Honey Smacks made for a vivid red color,” Dr. King said.
“Shredded Wheat made the middle of one of the flowers, and it was surrounded by Rice Chex and Puffed Rice,” he said, referring to the brands from Post, General Mills and Quaker Oats respectively.
One flower turned out to be magically delicious, as a famous animated leprechaun would likely say. It consisted of boxes of the General Mills brand Lucky Charms.
Dr. King shaped the sky above the tree from the Kellogg’s brands Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies and Crispex, known for their blue boxes.
The sun in the sky consists of the General Mills brand Cheerios — the yellow boxes of the original flavor. It’s rimmed by a darker box, Honey Nuts Cheerios, which — no offense, Life — is Dr. King’s favorite cereal.
The professor said the light shining through the tree is composed of many white Kellogg’s Corn Flakes boxes.
The entire scene of the trees, flowers and Cheerios-induced sun resulted from Dr. King’s lifelong interest in the colorful, eye-catching covers of cereal boxes.
“Someone had to gone to a lot of work to design those packages and had put a lot of creativity in them,” said Dr. King, who came to UCSB in 1987 from Washington, D.C.
“In keeping that material, I was in sense preserving a little bit of an anonymous artwork that otherwise would be lost,” said Dr. King, who previously worked as the literary manager at the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center.
“They’re so vivid!” Dr. King said about cereal boxes. “They’re just screaming at you to buy them: ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ “
Dr. King said he also was interested in the popular culture history in the boxes. He has cereals promoting everything from the “Star Wars” franchise and Mickey Mouse (Disney/Kellogg’s Mickey’s Magix) to films starring Batman, Superman and Spider-Man.
“Maybe you had the experience of going to the supermarkets with your parents and have the opportunity to choose and say, ‘Oh, I want that cereal?’ So those graphics that reach out to you remind you of cartoon characters or various things you had seen on television,” Dr. King said. “That’s what triggers those memories.”
The Life boxes in the tree trunk include a cover with Mikey, the boy who turns out to like Life cereals as his surprised friends watch him eat it.
“To this day, that was the most successful television ad ever,” said Dr. King, who has variations of other Life boxes inspired by the Mikey campaign.
Dr. King’s cereals also include less famous brands. Lovers of Cracker Jack, that famous snack from the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” might not know it was also a cereal that Ralston introduced in the 1980s.
“Each time I went to the store, I looked for a new and different box,” said Dr. King, whose collections also include thousands of labels off water bottles, soup cans, tuna fish cans and more.
Dr. King’s urge to collect and never stop started during his childhood in Canton, Ohio, with a stamp collection that evolved into a collection of little squares saying “stamp here.” They were on envelopes.
“I probably have collected a thousand of those and put those in the same albums as the stamps,” he said. “It’s a collection of a lack of stamps.”
Dr. King said his daughters’ curiosity about his collecting pursuits led him to write his 2008 book “Collections of Nothing” (University of Chicago Press).
The day after the author and his daughters created the Tree of Life, they took it down.
But there’s still more Life left in the Tree.
Dr. King said he hopes to find a venue in a city such as Los Angeles or San Francisco, where he can create the Tree of Life for a larger audience watching from a balcony or some other place above the work.
He said people like him imagine their collections outliving them.
“Those cereal boxes, if you take care of them, can be around for a few hundred years.”