Saturday, February 21, 2009

Cupcakes Takes The Cake Interview!

I'm posting it here...the answers to a great interview that Rachel Kraemer Bussel from Cupcakes Take the Cake Blogspot asked. She'll post them too, but I thought it might be interesting for some of you with questions about our experience in DC this past weekend! More on that later! Enjoy.

How did you get chosen to create this art installation, and how much time did you have to prepare? Whose idea was it to pair Lincoln and Obama?

After all of the positive feedback from my first cupcake portrait of Obama, I started imagining a bigger one for the Inauguration. Everything starts with imagination (see my tagline!). I went online and found out that the theme of his Inauguration was “A New Birth of Freedom,” which is a line taken from the Gettysburg Address. I’m from Illinois, and incredibly proud of these two men, so the pairing worked for me.

I designed the piece originally for the Inauguration, but I could not get anyone in politics to return my emails. I even emailed Shepard Fairey to see if he wanted to collaborate with me on the image! I also applied to march in the parade with the cupcakes, and I was not chosen, but at least they responded with a letter and a phone call. Finally one afternoon in late November I decided to go back to my roots and email all of the art museums in DC. The Smithsonian American Art Museum sent me an email response which sat deeply buried in my spam folder for 5 days. Thankfully, Katie Crooks from the museum followed up with a phone call and asked for a formal proposal. They were intrigued with the project and wanted to see if we could make it work! I sent them a 7 page proposal on December 8th, and they were very excited about the details. They felt it would be just as good—even better—for their Presidential Family Fun Day that they host in conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery.

We felt the image still worked for President’s Day, especially since it was two days after the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. Did you know that the Smithsonian American Art Museum was the site for Lincoln’s second Inaugural Ball? And the place was trashed with food all over the place by the end of the night! We did much better getting the cupcake liners into the garbage! It turns out, however, that the pairing is a hot-button topic for some. Of the thousands of live people I met, no one voiced dissent. From the 100 or so comments on threads following articles on the NPR site and the NYT site, about 50% of the comments were negative, due to the subject matter. Interesting how the negative people stay home to type about the positive experiences all the rest of us are having!!!!

Tell us about the actual process of preparing the installation and the making of the cupcakes. How did you choose the images of Obama and Lincoln? Did you have to get any special permission legally to use those images?

Wow, that’s a small novel in itself! I started actively planning and purchasing supplies a month in advance. I had to buy 40 tubs at Target and 240 aluminum pans at the grocery store! We made 120 lbs. of fondant over that month, 40 lbs. at a time. I figured out all of my mathematical calculations: how many circles we needed total, how many in each color/shade, what the mathematical formula was for each shade, etc. For instance, we needed 1200 of the darkest black/brown circles, which was 25% black and 75% brown, using over 12 pounds of fondant. I designed the gridding and organizational system, and then I tried to anticipate how much labor I would need. I sent an email to all of my staff asking them to pick up extra shifts. Two weeks before the exhibit we rolled all of the circles, and we kept them from drying out by placing them in aluminum pans between sheets of plastic wrap, all labeled well and placed in huge ziplock bags with a moist papertowel. We blew through this stage of the project in less time than we expected!

We started the baking on Saturday the 7th, 1 week before the installation. We kept everything well wrapped for freshness, and we froze the cupcakes for the first three days so they would last. We used huge piping bags filled with batter to pipe the cupcakes, and we lost about 15% of our product because they were too large, small, underbaked, overbaked, etc. This means we actually baked about 7,000 cupcakes. We baked in two convection ovens with a total of 10 sheet trays, so we could bake 480 at a time. After they had cooled, we filled them with Italian meringue buttercream: vanilla for Abe and the flag and chocolate for Obama.

While overseeing that process, I was in the back room of the bakery putting circles on cupcakes 6 pans at a time. 24 cupcakes fit in an aluminum baking pan; 6 pans fit into a sterilite tub, and I carefully labeled each tray and tub as I completed it. At first I thought I’d do all the circle placing myself. Ha! By the end I think it took 8 different people working on that to finish it. It’s the most time consuming part, and you have to try to catch your mistakes as you go.;

As for the images, to begin, I did a Google Image Search of Lincoln. I chose the picture I liked best of him, which luckily was taken 2 weeks before the Gettysburg address, so it was perfect thematically. The photo was taken in 1863 by Alexander Gardener. It is so old that it is public domain. For the companion Obama picture, I looked for an image that literally balanced the Lincoln picture. I found the photo on TheMavenReport blog, and asked them to advise me on the authorship of the picture. They didn’t respond. I figured I was within Fair Use Copyright Law, so I proceeded. I may have been within Fair Use, but when I heard about the hooplah with Shepard Fairey and AP, I got nervous. It was the same day I got my contract from the Smithsonian, so I was really feeling the weight of what I was about to do. I decided I should spend a little more time figuring out who the Obama image belonged to.

After just a few minutes on Google, I found the upcoming image for the March issue of Vanity Fair. Once glance at it and I just knew. I had used an Annie Leibovitz photo. I could tell by the quality of the image, and by the intimacy of the connection between photographer and subject. It figures, as I have been a huge Leibovitz fan for over 2 decades. She has an incredible gift. And I was already chest deep in cupcakes with all the fondant circles complete when I made this discovery!

Very quickly, I went to her Wikipedia page, and then found the page of the company Contact Press Images that represents her work. I called them, they told me who to email, and I proceeded to write an email in which I just put my heart on my sleeve. It was Friday evening a week before I would install the piece. I didn’t sweat it over the weekend, because it was out of my hands. I knew I had done the right thing. On Monday morning at 9am sharp I followed up with a phone call. Jeff Smith called me back about 30 minutes later. “This is weird,” he said. “This is cool. Did the Smithsonian ask you to do it?” After a few more minutes of conversation he said “Sure we’ll do it.” What an amazing gift!

What kind of planning did you do to figure out how many cupcakes you needed of each color to recreate the images? Exactly how many cupcakes did you wind up using?

First, I worked with my friend and uber-designer Shasti O’Leary Soudant of SOS Creative. She has a slicker production design background than I do, so we collaborated on the composition. I work in Photoshop to reduce the image to large pixels; I run filters to begin to divide it into values and then I play with the colors and shades. You can grid an image by hand and do this process with your own computer (i.e. your brain!) but it takes much longer. I am lazy, so I use Photoshop. Once we have an image we like, we make color separations and count by hand how many circles we need of each color. Then we do the calculations mentioned above to mix the colors in correct amounts and in correct relation to each other. All I have to say is MATH, MATH, MATH, AND ONCE AGAIN MATH!

The piece was 97 cupcakes wide by 61 cupcakes tall which comes to exactly 5,917 cupcakes. If you baked 2 dozen in your home oven every week day for a year (taking Saturday and Sunday off) you would have just over 6,000 cupcakes. That’s a lot of cupcakes!

How long did it take to set it up, and how many people did you have helping you?

Once we had done all of the organizing and placing of the circles, putting the piece together is the easy part! We unloaded on Friday morning at 9am, and then about 6 of us worked on putting the circles on the last 1/3 of the cupcakes.

At 2pm we began the installation. I noticed right away that I had made a small mistake; the two groups on the Obama side of the image had to work in reverse alphabetical order on their trays. We fixed that without too much effort. We had 8 people (plus me makes 9) installing: One cupcake placer per quadrant, and one “unwrapper/organizer.” It was a good system.

We would have been done in 4 hours if it weren’t for the third eye we gave Obama toward the end. Apparently I had finished a set of 6 trays at 2 in the morning on Tuesday, and I labeled it wrong. The next morning I did the same set over again, labeled it correctly, but couldn’t get the sense of de ja vu out of my head! The mistake became clear to the people watching the live feed video before it became clear to us! When you are down in the middle of it you can’t really get a sense of the full image. Once I realized what was happening, it was easy enough to pull out the offending set and replace them, thanks to my plan and all of the back-up materials I brought. Never install a cake—any cake—much less something of this scale without back-ups!

As a result, I think we finished in about 4 hours. We were very, very pleased with the result, and very relieved that it went so smoothly. I wasn’t sorry about the mistake at all; I felt like it showed that this is a human endeavor, and I thought it highlighted the problem-solving process. If it went off without a hitch, it would have seemed too easy. It was not easy. The planning and organizing was as big a part of the effort as the image making and baking put together! After being an art teacher for 15 years, organizing a project is my specialty. I think those skills were really vital here!

What kinds of cupcakes/filling did you use, and why did you choose those specific recipes?

Originally I wanted to make Obama from chocolate cake, Lincoln from the Mary Todd recipe that was his favorite; yellow cake for the white stripes; and red velvet for the red stripes. Unfortunately, we did some trial runs, and all of the different kinds baked up in different shapes. On a large scale like this, differences of 1/8 inch can translate into trouble with the grid and the image. Also, I had enough variables to deal with without adding in buttermilk, cocoa powder, etc. And cost was definitely an issue that had us leaning toward simplicity with the recipes. Not to mention insurance, liability, food allergies, etc. I played it as safe as I could.

I did break out a little on the filling! I love cupcakes with Italian meringue buttercream, so I treated everyone by filling all of the cupcakes with our own special recipe. It belongs to Dolci bakery in Buffalo, so I can’t share it here, but there are many recipes out there and they all work. I also like swiss meringue buttercream. Try Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible for some excellent recipes! For a chocolate version, you can add bittersweet melted chocolate to the vanilla buttercream and it is simply awesome! I filled Obama with chocolate!

As for my yellow cake, sorry, that’s classified!

You make your own fondant; can you tell us more about what kind of ingredients you use and why?

Most people think they can’t stand fondant, but what they can’t stand is most of the commercially made fondant that is available! It smells and tastes more like chemicals than food, and it has a bizarre texture in the mouth. I make my own using a slightly adapted recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “The Cake Bible.” I use her variation that uses corn syrup instead of glucose, because it is cheaper and I don’t have to run to Michael’s every minute. I order glycerine in large bottles from Country Kitchen Sweet Art for the same reason. I like the way this fondant tastes—mostly just sweet—because it is probably 95% powdered sugar.

I mix the fondant in my 60 quart Hobart mixer 40 lbs. at a time, but you can do a single batch in your Kitchenaid Mixer with the dough hook, or you can mix it by hand. It requires a lot of kneading, and I recommend that you warm it up often in the microwave to make it pliable. My only complaint about the recipe is that it can be difficult to work with the final product. It gets crumbly quickly. We did some experiments and discovered that if you add just 5% of Wilton gumpaste to your fondant, it keeps it much more pliable! So, for every 5 pounds of fondant, add 4 ounces of gumpaste. Or, for 1 ¼ pounds fondant, use 1 ounce gumpaste. Knead it in well, wrap it with plastic, and keep it in an airtight container.

The other reason I like this fondant, besides the fact that it actually tastes like food, is that it holds up better. We tried Satin Ice fondant, but if any moisture got on the circles at all, they melted into sticky puddles! My fondant is a little heartier, and it withstood the two weeks of packaging without any problems! More tips: roll it out with cornstarch, and add shortening every time you knead the scraps back together!

Did you do any trial runs to make sure the piece would come out theway you'd envisioned?

We did LOTS of trial runs! We tried out 5 different liners, we tried filling them to different heights, we tried different baking pans, and we tried different recipes. Every different variable made a difference! Once I had chosen my liners, pans, and recipe, then I chose the size circle cutters I would use: 1 7/8 inch to be exact. Then I could have the bases made to the correct specs! Again, MATH! But anyone who doesn’t think there is math involved in baking is in denial! It’s just yummy chemistry, that’s all!

All the cupcakes were made in Buffalo and transported to Washington,DC. How did you accomplish that while keeping them intact?

We made the cupcakes over the span of 5 days, wrapping them and refrigerating or freezing as needed. To keep them from getting beaten up, we used aluminum pans that were taller than the actual cupcakes, and we “snuggled” them into the pans with plastic wrap to help them stay put. We then labeled each pan, wrapped it with plastic wrap, and used ¼ sheet cake boards between stacks of three so they wouldn’t squish down. Two stacks of three pans, for a total of 6, fit in each Sterilite tub. We had 40 tubs to fill, and they all had their own labels, too. I had a hitch put on my mini van and we rented a 5x8 U-Haul trailer to drag them all down to DC! It was bad weather when we left Buffalo, so we kept our fingers crossed that out little lovelies would make it without winding up in a ditch somewhere in Pennsylvania! We arrived in DC at 2:30 am after an 11 hour drive. It was epic. We were travelling with 3 children, 3 assistants, my husband, one car, one minivan and one trailer. What an adventure!

What kinds of reactions did you get from the crowd?

Everyone I met over the course of the two days was amazing. AMAZING! There was so much support, and good will, and excitement! The visitors who saw the piece had wonderful questions and comments to make. The one I heard the most was “How did you think of doing this?” If the subject matter or materials of the piece bothered anyone, I didn’t hear about it. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive!

Maybe all of the negative folks stayed home to type on threads about the real experiences the rest of us are having. Really, they should get out more and eat some cupcakes. It’s hard to be snarky when someone is handing you a free cupcake with a big smile on their face!

I have never heard more people in one place say “please” and “thank you.” There were lots of requests for a blue cupcake with a star, since there were only 50 of those. People figured out they were special. Also, as a side note, when I took cupcakes to the soup kitchen the next day to serve them, I heard the same thing: “May I have another, please? A red one this time?” And always “Thank you.” I think this piece gave you a chance to let your inner child out, if you still have one. I got a wonderful email from a viewer who is a musician who was there with her scientist husband confirming just that.

What was it like to have the project broadcast live over the Internet?

That was a pretty amazing experience! I knew they were going to do a time-lapse video of the installation and de-installation, but I didn’t know about the live broadcast until they asked me how I felt about being “miked” the whole time. If you hadn’t guessed, I am not a shy nor a private person, so I agreed to do it. I have been an art teacher since my early 20’s and I’m a mother of 2 small children now, so I have a pretty good filter! I had to keep reminding others around me that they could be heard by the mike, too!

Later, when we were done, to find out that 20,000 people had tuned in at some point or another was mind blowing. I hope listening to the process and to the answers of viewers questions added another layer. It was really cool to check my Face Book page later and see comments that let me know someone had been listening. I was surprised at the negative comments about my voice, and the assumptions some people made about why I sound the way I do. I had a very serious injury almost 12 years ago, and I have a voice disorder as a result. It’s called disphonia, which basically means I sound like I have laryngitis. Some people think I am sick and they don’t like it that I am working with food.

Is there a political and/or patriotic element to the piece, and how do cupcakes specifically fit in?

There is absolutely a patriotic element to the piece! In my artist statement, I wrote:

Today’s installation celebrates the Inauguration of President Barack Obama just a few weeks ago and the 200th Anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth just a few days ago. These two men have been compared of late for more than just their early careers as lawyers from Illinois.

I created this dual portrait with the belief that the vision of a single person, gifted with the ability to lead, can change our world for the better. Rarely do individuals come about who have an absolute belief in the need for a fair and just government, and the skills to speak and motivate others to act on that belief. Obama and Lincoln are both cut from that cloth. My pride in them and in our country for electing them is immense. My gratitude for the changes they represent is deep. And my awe at the size of the tasks they face(d) is immeasurable.

There is also a personal element to the pairing for me. On the NYT blog “The Caucus” there was an article about my piece entitled “The Tastiest Obama/Lincoln Comparison Ever.” I wrote this in response to many of the comments there:

I am intrigued with the conversation this has sparked (or just added fuel to) about the worthiness or worthlessness of comparing Obama and Lincoln. Everyone brings their own agenda to the viewing of any artwork, so none of you are wrong. However, as an artist, I work from my heart and my experience. My reason for connecting the two is very personal.
When Lincoln was president, my ancestors lived in Atlanta and owned slaves. This is a source of great shame for me. Fortunately, I was raised by two liberal parents in a suburb of Chicago. They taught me to value people for what is within and to celebrate our differences rather than shun them. My priority as a parent is to raise my children to continue to celebrate diversity in all of its forms.

We chose our neighborhood based on its diversity. We chose their school based on its diversity. They describe people by the way they act, or by the color of the shirt they are wearing, but not by the color of their skin.

Thus, the Inauguration of Obama and the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth was a personal celebration for this liberal daughter of Illinois. Our family has come a long way since the 1800s. We have a long way to go. Thank god there are intelligent people willing to lead the charge. I baked them some cupcakes. I shared them with a lot of happy people. None went to waste. It felt really good! It’s as simple as that.

How do cupcakes fit in? They are quintessentially American. They carry their own connotation as a material. And they evoke an emotional response from the viewer. Also, because it’s made out of food, this piece engages all 5 senses. When we uncovered it Saturday morning, this incredible wave of yummy cupcake aroma wafted out and around the gallery. Visually, the cupcakes work on a number of levels. The further away you get from the piece, the more readable the image is. It is especially readable through a camera lens or in a photograph. But I personally love the piece up close. I love the imperfect surface of the image. Each cupcake tilts and leans and has its own character. The subtle shading of the fondant becomes more apparent. They are very satisfying individual “units” to work with!

How was this experience similar to and different from the1,240-cupcake Obama art installation you made just prior to the election?

It’s funny, the pictures of the new piece make the original 1200+ cupcake image look small! They were similar because it is the same process, essentially, that I worked with in the image making, the baking, and the transporting processes. I vastly improved my organizational system for the second one, and thank goodness! The first one I made at home over 5 days with the help of one friend. We worked a total of about 40 hours. This one took access to a commercial kitchen, months of planning, a whole lot more paperwork (i.e. contracts, insurance, etc.) and about 300 hours of labor spread amongst 14 people by the end of it all. And remember, I only have 3 employees! By the end, I had 6 employees, a few interns, and a whole smattering of volunteers. When you do something this scale it is bigger than you, and you have to have a team mentality. That’s one of the things about it that is so satisfying!

Have you had any official word from the Obama Administration about the piece?


Do you have any plans for future cupcake art installations? Who else would you like to see recreated in cupcakes?

The press in England is really into these portraits, so I’d like to go to Buckingham Palace and do a portrait of the Queen.

More seriously, I have donated a LOT of my time and resources on these projects. Now I need to find some private commissions and/or collaborations with corporate sponsorship. I’ll be contacting art museums, movie and music production companies, and huge party planners to try to drum up some interest. Can’t you see something even bigger in Vegas? Yah baby!

Also, the next cupcake installation doesn’t have to be a portrait. Anything image we can import into Adobe Photoshop can become a cupcake installation. The possibilities are endless, just constrained by the size of the display space and the budget of the patron!

One thing I am imagining is doing something a bit smaller with a more layered surface. You know, adding appliqué and piping and hand-painting to the image. I might do that on square cookies. Will you still love me, CTTC?

Your bakery, Zillycakes, is set to open in Buffalo in May. Can you tell us what to expect from it?

Ah, but I’m not a bakery…I’m a custom cake studio. All of the baking happens down the street at Dolci bakery. We’ll be doing 5 things. You can read details about all of them on my website at

We make custom cakes for weddings, birthdays, etc. You can watch us work from the street or from inside the shop, just like on Food Network, but live!

We offer classes in cake design one night a week, and we have an open studio night another night where you can come in to work and use our tools.

We have a cupcake bar, where you choose your cake, your frosting, and your topping and we make it up right there. Fun, right?

We have a small retail section with a beautifully crafted line of mini stacked cakes, cut out cookies, and other small treats to give as gifts.

We design cake events and installations, such as the cupcake portraits you have seen.

The backs of your t-shirts say, "Feed your imagination." What does that phrase mean to you?

The short answer to that is this: If you can imagine it, we can make it from cake, and it will feed and delight your guests!

The long answer is this: I am an educator; I (almost) have a Masters in Art in Teaching Art Education K-12. I have taught art for 20 years. I believe as human beings our greatest gift is our imagination. I see it present in all children. If we nurture it—if we feed it—it grows. If it is starved, it eventually shrivels up and disappears.

It’s our job as a species to continue to feed the imagination of our children. It’s the only way we’ll survive. The first step toward solving any problem begins in the imagination. If you can imagine something, then it’s just a matter of logistics to bring it to fruition.

How do we feed it? Stop saying “no” to every idea that pops into your head. Say “what if” more often. Buy a journal or a sketch book and write down your ideas. Brainstorm with friends. Don’t be afraid to take a risk or ask for help. These are things that help me keep my own imagination fed and I’ve seen it work with my students, too.

I could stay up on this soap box and go on and on, but this is a cupcake blog, so I’ll stop there. Make stuff. Keep making stuff. Tell your kids it’s cool to make stuff. ‘Nuff said.

What are you working on in the meantime?

Cleaning up my wreck of a house!

(That’s my big agenda for this week)

Then in March, I have sketches to make for my 09 brides, tastings to schedule, and a whole shop to build out in March and April! I’ve got my hands full!