Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Smithsonian!

It's hard to believe, but there is a good chance my art will be in a major American museum. For less than 24 hours, but still it will be there, nonetheless! It's an ironic story. Years ago I might have loved to be in a museum, but I could never settle on a medium. I could never get a body of work done in a studio, because I crave interaction. My creative spirit seems to need the energy of others to awaken it, and the times when I tried to be a solitary studio artist never amounted to much. I was more successful as an art teacher, though I had to live vicariously through my students and their creations. I created the environment and the lessons for them, but I was left out of the art-making, for the most part.

Now my baking, that is another story. Perhaps because it is divorced from the traditional "art materials," creating my cookies (and now my cakes) never felt connected to that other story. I enjoyed it as a craft, I enjoyed the work environment of a bakery, and I enjoyed the enjoyment my baked products gave others! I found satisfaction in it partly as a meditation and partly as a design problem. I'm not self-taught, but I'm not formally taught by a culinary institute, either. My experience has come on the job over a span of 25 years: it began with Ganache in Evanston, IL owned by Jane Davis; followed by Truffes in St. Louis, MO owned by Helen Fletcher; and finally concluding with Dolci in Buffalo, NY partially owned and fully operated (at the time) by Kevin and Melissa Gardner.

I started at Ganache as a "cookie girl" when I was 15 years old, and I continued to work there seasonally for over 8 years. At Truffes, in the months before graduate school, I also made cookies, though I yearned to have a shot as the "cake lady" someday. My chance finally came at Dolci, where I took a job as soon as my youngest child was 18 months old and eligible for daycare at the JCC. After a few months there making cookies, I was given the opportunity to decorate cakes and then to take over the wedding cake "department." The wedding business tripled in my first year, and I began to have the feeling that I was quickly discovering what I wanted to be when I grew up.

After my first year of weddings, I began to make plans to brand my own name and open my own cake design studio. I'm currently about 3 to 4 months away from my grand opening, if all goes as planned. In deciding to be a cake designer and a business owner, I felt I was putting to rest any old desire to be a "gallery artist." Everything I needed personally and artistically was present in the cake business: the interaction, the creative planning, the craftsmanship of a finished product, the collaboration with the bakers and the brides. It used my entire skill set, and I felt for the first time in a long time like my creative juices were really flowing. I was building a portfolio.

The fact that my crazy Obama cupcake project garnered national attention was wonderful! It felt like a lark, a delight, a crazy woman's epic love poem in food to someone who moves her and inspires her. Through the interest in the project that followed, I began to be more aware of the way the medium itself spoke as much as the image. Cupcakes. In the hierarchy of art materials, where fiber is low and metal and glass are high, where oil is better than acrylic, and where representational work battles it out with conceptual work, where do cupcakes fall? A medium that can be bought at any grocery store and mastered by anyone with an oven and a wooden spoon. A medium that is intrinsically American, and chock-full of emotional connotations. A medium that requires audience participation, that pulls you in and then leaves the gallery as a part of you. A medium that is ephemeral in nature, existing briefly as an installation, but enduring in the memory of those who partook of it.

Is it an image? An installation? A performance? To me, it's a process, and the conception of it came about as much from my love of domestic arts and decorative arts as it did from studying gallery artists. I have always been moved by the beautiful work women have done and still do to make their chores joyful and their daily grind more beautiful. Stitching and baking and making objects for use are acts I hold in high esteem. So this new art of mine comes as much from that reverence as from seeds planted by artists who inspired my in art school. The grid on which I base my installations belongs to the weaver and the beader and the needlepointer as much as to Chuck Close, Jennifer Bartlett , and Sol Lewitt (all of whom have been influential in my work, too).

So, on the eve of the opening of my cake design studio "Zillycakes," I find myself in the crazy position of having been asked by the Smithsonian for a formal proposal regarding the piece I briefly proposed to them in an email, while still in my post-election euphoria. It will be a diptych of Obama and Lincoln, in honor of the theme of the Inauguration, "A New Birth of Freedom," which is a line taken from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. They have asked to have the piece installed on President's Day weekend, when they stage one of their biggest community outreach programs. "It will get better attendance and better press that weekend," they explained. All I could think was how much easier and cheaper it would be to get a hotel room! If the proposal is accepted, I'll install it on Friday, Feb. 13 ( with a black cat and a salt shaker present), and then it will be on display on Saturday Feb. 14. A very sweet valentine's day for me, indeed.

In one week the proposal is due. I expect to have a response from them quickly, as they seem quite excited by this collaboration. And me? Excited? Over the moon. And just a little, teeny bit vindicated...thinking about all those folks in art school who gave me a hard time over making "feel good" art so many years ago...what would they say about this? I can only imagine!

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