March 16, 2013 at 12:17 PM ET
Steve Casino found a peanut, found a peanut. Then he cracked it open (gently). But he didn't eat it. Instead, the 46-year-old toy inventor decided to paint a face on the peanut shell ... and thus a hobby, and a lucrative second profession, were born.
"I was looking for something unique to work on," Casino says. So he dug into a whole bunch of peanuts at work (snack foods fuel toymaking brains, it seems), and found one that looked like himself. ("I have a shaved head and glasses, so I look like a peanut," he said.) "There are 10 billion people painting on canvases, and it's hard to stand out from the crowd."
So after experimenting with the self-portrait, Casino turned to one of his favorite bands, the Ramones, for inspiration. Soon enough, he had the whole band ("I nearly ran out of steam on Joey"), with instruments, created on peanuts.
And it all went to shell from there.
In just the past five months, Casino has made approximately 30 creations on nuts, ranging from TV favorite ("Star Trek") to Spider-Man fighting Doc Ock. One guy he knew growing up by the name of Trent Reznor contacted him around Christmas -- "I hadn't talked to him in 20 years" -- and he got a commission to paint the Oscar-winning Nine Inch Nails singer and his family on nut shells. "He encouraged me a lot," says Casino (and yes, that is his real name). "It was just a hobby, and after that it was like, 'This great artist likes my art, I must be an artist!'"
As he's gone on, the creation of the nut-works has gotten more elaborate; he lays on hair (embroidery floss) strand by strand, and he crafts appropriate accessories like guitars and microphones (plus arms and legs) to go with the miniature sculptures. Each takes from 5 to 10 hours to create, "mostly because I make mistakes," he says. "If you screw up one millimeter it doesn't look like the person any more."
Casino may not have known he could paint until recently, but he's not a complete creative newbie: He's a "failed caricature artist" who used to provide drawings to The Village Voice newspaper, and once had a regular job doing caricatures on Long Island, N.Y., but he hadn't done those in 15 years. He eventually ended up with toy company Bang Zoom Design, where he's worked on toys like racing puppies for Barbie dolls.
And for those racing to his website now to get their own favorites (or loved ones) done up in peanut shells (which, by the way, are opened, legumes removed, re-sealed and coated in polyurethane to prevent decay), there's something of a waiting list on commissions for the artworks, which run from $300-$1000 each, depending on complexity.
Casino doesn't use a magnifying glass, so this hobby-turned-adventure may have an expiry date if his eyes don't hold up. For now at least, he says he's having a grand time with the good old fashioned peanut. And he's better able to focus on the art now that he has some extra hands to sort out the best nuts from the bunch. "Half of the caricature I do is finding the right peanut," he says. "So I have my daughters -- they're 7 and 11 -- helping me in the basement."
And how does he reimburse them? "I pay in peanuts."