Putting Works in Their Mouths

Times Staff Writer

For dental technician Ron Grant, life is hardly the same old grind.

Grant, 47, of Murrieta, is the Modigliani of molars. In his hands, a porcelain crown is a blank canvas just waiting to accommodate Mickey Mouse or a monarch butterfly, a college logo or an American eagle. Smile--and the world will learn your little secret.

It started 15 years ago when Grant painted a heart for his mother's crown, "just kind of a novelty thing." As dentist told dentist, patient told patient, the idea caught on. Today, Grant says, several hundred of his paintings are in Southern California mouths.

One of his early, and most challenging, commissions was for Paul Conrad, editorial cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He wanted a Richard Nixon caricature on the crown on one back molar, a Ronald Reagan on the other. "The Nixon tooth proved to be as rotten as Nixon," Conrad observes, "and it fell out. But Ron's still healthy."

Conrad, whose dentist in Palos Verdes had told him about Grant's work, drew the caricatures "as simply as I could" for the artist to copy and was pleased. And whatever happened to the Richard Nixon crown? Conrad says, "I think my dentist was going to make a tie pin out of it."

Among the most unusual commissions was a young woman's request for a marijuana leaf. "I told her I didn't know what one looked like, so she drew a picture." Grant asked no questions.

Then there was the "CEO type" who asked Grant to paint an obscene gesture. "Evidently he had some poor feelings for someone and he could just smile and . . ."

Why do people want pictures on their molars? "I guess it's like you're getting away with something that nobody else really knows about," Grant says. "When it gets too close to the front, they're a little reluctant."

But not the longshoreman who had Grant paint an American flag on the crown that was "right on his front tooth."

Grant's clients range in age from 20 to 60. His youngest was a 13-year-old boy needing a crown. "His mom said he wouldn't kick and scream too much if he could have something put on his tooth. He had a little soccer ball."

A dental technician for 20 years, Grant the artist is self-taught. At work in "Eye Teeth," his home lab, he painstakingly copies images onto porcelain, working with "a worn-out brush with a few bristles on it" and a triple magnification loupe.

Although he'll paint on crowns made by other technicians, he'd rather not. The process, which evolved through "trial and error," starts with mixing the china paints. As he paints, Grant sets the colors by repeatedly baking the crown at 1600 degrees in an oven with a vacuum chamber that pulls out the air and makes the surface nonporous.

When a painting is finished, Grant applies a transparent porcelain glaze--"It's like the glass that covers the painting." And it ensures that the paint, although nontoxic, isn't going to seep into the client's mouth.

"There are no health concerns," says Murrieta dentist Larry Hoyt. "It's completely safe. And, if they decide at some time they do not want it on their teeth anymore, it can be polished off."

So far, Hoyt adds, "I haven't had to remove any. Anybody who's had them thoroughly enjoys them"--so long as they're not too obvious. "It's not like they open their mouth and smile and it's like they have some chives stuck in their teeth."

For the most part, Hoyt adds, "it's not the type of stuff people do with tattoos. It's much more elevated." And does Hoyt have a Grant creation in his mouth? Well, no. After all, he is a dentist and "the beauty to us lies in trying to re-create what God gave us originally."

That would not include a molar sporting the letters PIG (for pride, integrity and guts--commissioned by a policeman) or a depiction of Superman (the request of a father, daughter and son) or a biplane (now decorating the mouth of an aerospace worker). And Grant has done Thumper as well as Mickey Mouse, but in this instance the ever-vigilant Disney hasn't lodged a protest.

Hoyt's daughter-in-law, Kristine, who in 1982-83 portrayed Snow White at Disneyland, sports a Snow White on a molar--just because it's "kind of silly and fun." It was copied by Grant from an old Snow White record album Kristine found in an antiques shop and, she says, "he did a really good job. It's amazing because it's so tiny, but so detailed."

Lori Wright has Winnie-the-Pooh painted on a bicuspid, strategically placed so that "I don't have to show people" unless there's a reason to do so. The bear was an obvious choice for Wright, who makes Pawsitively Wright Bears, miniature teddy bears, in her Murrieta home studio. Grant's creation--Winnie reaching out for a bumble bee--is "fantastic," says Wright.

Tooth art is not for everyone. It can only be done on crowns or porcelain veneers, not on teeth. And it's definitely a luxury item. The miniature works of art take Grant from two to four hours and range in price from $200 to $400, crown not included.

He is not the only tooth Titian. But Grant's wife, Chris, who has a rose on a molar and a bouquet of tulips on a bicuspid, says that although perhaps 50 others throughout the country are doing tooth art, "You're talking shopping at Sears versus Neiman Marcus."

As her husband's unofficial marketing director, she's spurred him to paint the logos of the Denver Broncos, the Chicago Bulls, the Utah Jazz and other professional teams--and sent a sample to the flamboyant Dennis Rodman. She reasons, "All these guys are tattooed and pierced."

And, Grant observes, hockey players should be a natural--all those crowns.

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