Next up in our Cookie’sCool series, we chat with Cookie’sCool instructor Mallory Mae Chiavacci of ButterWinks, perhaps best known for her amazingly detailed Alphonse Mucha-inspired series and her distinctive “wet-by-wet” technique. While many people achieve incredible detail with a paint brush and food coloring, few have achieved the painterly effects that Mallory so masterfully creates with regular ol’ royal icing and a pastry bag.
Karen Anderson, former Cookie Connection contributor, had the honor not too long ago of interviewing Mallory for her How DID You Do That? column. In that piece, we learned a lot about Mallory’s signature “wet-by-wet” technique. (I like to call it that because, in addition to laying wet icing on wet icing, Mallory
often pipes colors – and lots of them - directly next to one another when wet.)
That said, we’ll try to avoid repeat technique questions here. Instead, we’ll focus our attention on Mallory’s sky rocket-like trajectory into the cookie stratosphere, how she’s managing her success, and her other exciting cookie plans (along with Cookie’sCool, that is).
JMU: Welcome back, Mallory! It’s great to be chatting with you again. Not long ago, you were hitting Cookie Connection’s pages, and many cookiers’ screens, for the very first time, and now – wow – you’re a regular cookie celebrity! Let’s back up a bit though, and share a little history. I understand from Karen’s earlier interview that you’ve only been decorating since January 2012. So how did you first get interested in it? Did you decorate cakes or other forms of sweets beforehand?
MMC: Haha, far from celebrity, but thank you for the ego boost! It’s great to be back. I love being a part of Cookie Connection.
I had a short stint as a cake decorator at a local grocery store; I picked up a bag of buttercream without any sort of lesson or direction and started decorating. (Err, at least TRIED to decorate. There definitely were some not-so-pretty cakes out there at the beginning.) After some time, my mom and I decided to try to do it all on our own, and one of our cake customers asked if we could do matching cookies. We realized how much more fun cookies were compared to the stress-filled tiered cakes (in both the creating and transporting aspects) and eventually parlayed our venture mainly into cookies.
JMU: Can you tell us a little more about the non-cookie you? What do you like to do when you’re not cookie decorating? Or do you think and dream cookies 24/7?
MMC: I’d say cookies are quite possibly 95 percent of my life right now. If I’m not actually decorating, I’m thinking about decorating, answering emails and messages, figuring out what my next big project could be, what art piece I’d like to tackle, what picture or set I should share next on social media, etc. If I feel comfortable enough to walk away from cookies for the day (which is quite hard to do sometimes), I will usually be reading, drawing/sketching/painting, or out and about with my friends and family. Oh, and lots of coffee. Always.
JMU: You seem to have a natural gift for drawing freehand, and a particular interest in comic book heroes, which are often the subject of your cookie art (as beautifully demonstrated above)! What came first – cartooning or cookie decorating? Have you had any formal art training? If not, how did you pick up and hone your drawing - and piping - skills?
MMC: Drawing has been my "thing" for as long as I can remember; there hasn’t been a time in my life that art (in one way or another) has not been the prevalent feature. I was in art clubs and committees throughout school, my notebooks were more littered with doodles than notes in most cases, and I eventually landed in AP Portfolio Art in high school. My interest with comics and comic book art in general didn’t really come into play until we did our first Comic Con in Orlando a little over a year ago, for which we got great feedback. With both drawing and decorating/piping, it has been pure practice and trial and error. I am eternally learning from my own mistakes, being inspired by the works of others, and growing as an artist from a mixture of the two.
JMU: Lots of us rely on Kopykakes and other projection devices when we’re trying to mimic another design, but you clearly don’t need any of these trappings. Do you have a copy of whatever it is you’re trying to replicate in front of you while you work? Or are you working strictly from visual memory?
What tips (top three) can you give to readers to help them improve their freehand drawing/piping skills?
MMC: Most of my work comes straight from my own sketches. I will never start a cookie project without drawing it first (even if it is a replication).
When I’m doing a piece, I always have my sketch in front of me and my iPad with tons of references and originals.
To work on freehand piping, I would say the best way to get to know your royal icing and how it reacts to your movements would be printing out a line drawing, putting a sheet of wax paper over it, and tracing the lines. Take mental notes of how your icing reacts to curves, where it may kink, what it does when you move your hand a certain way, and adjust your gestures and movements accordingly. Write words in cursive over and over, play with lettering, get used to the piping bag the same way you had to get used to your pencil in grade school. Practice can only help lead to new revelations!
For drawing, I would say my top tip is . . . constantly sketch! Get a sketchbook and a pencil and bring it everywhere you go. Make it a point to sketch daily, whether it be from your environment or trying to master the lines of your favorite characters. As long as you’re practicing, you’re getting better and learning new tricks and ways to do things.
Basically . . . never stay idle!
JMU: Many of your cookies are near-perfect replicas of famous art, like your Alphonse Mucha series (above) and your version of Leonid Afremov’s The Loneliness of Autumn, pictured in Karen's earlier post. What is it about art, and these particular pieces, that provides you with inspiration?
MMC: Nothing inspires me more than grand artists and their pieces of work. This comes from every level of artist - from the greats you learn about in school, to the countless amazing people you can find in social media, to local artists at markets, shows, and exhibits. Nothing makes me want to be better at what I do than seeing others excel at what they love. A lot of the time when I’m doing a piece like the ones you’ve mentioned, it’s a challenge for myself - to see whether or not I can achieve the same level of craftsmanship in a brand new medium.
JMU: Whenever you post in the 24/7 chat room on Cookie Connection, you seem to be elbow-deep in icing, prepping sets for your next cookie order. But is that an accurate perception? Roughly how many hours per week do you spend decorating for orders versus prepping for magazine articles or cookie decorating classes, or doing some other thing? What is the mix of activities in your current cookie business?
JMU: I believe I read somewhere (perhaps in Karen’s earlier interview with you) that it’s just you and your mom in your cookie business. Your mom makes the cookies and mixes icing colors, and you do all of the decorating . . . is that right? Can you tell us a little more about your current cookie operation – i.e., who else do you employ, if anyone? do you work from home or have a shop? how many cookies per week do you decorate?
MMC: It is indeed just me and my mom, and we operate out of my home kitchen under the cottage food laws of Florida. All of our orders are completely local and, like with anything else, we have our busy and slow seasons. Our orders tend to thin out around summer time and pick up exponentially without stopping in the fall until summer comes around again. With that being said, I think on average we’re doing about 200 cookies per week.
JMU: OK, so I lied . . . I’ve got a couple of technique questions for you! When you’re doing “wet-by-wet” icing applications, especially on your very large cookies, how do you ensure that there are no seams between your colors? Or are they all just skillfully covered with your signature black outlines? Your work always looks so seamless and perfectly flat!
MMC: When I’m doing a larger or more important piece, I typically plan out my breaks, which colors I want to lay first, what days I’m going to work on certain parts of the piece, etc. If I know I’m laying colors specifically together without any plans of a black border, I’ll have all of my colors ready to go so I can use them immediately and as fast as possible next to each other.
Sometimes I definitely will plan the “seams”, so that way I know where I want my black outlines to go. Every cookie is different, and I have to have a thorough plan in mind before I’ll even roll and cut the dough.
JMU: You seem to work dominantly with wet-on-wet and “wet-by-wet” techniques? Why is that? Are there other techniques that you’re dying to try?
MMC: Everything I do with cookies has been a very natural evolution of technique and process. At first I didn’t understand bleeding, what caused it or why it was happening. I didn’t realize the things I could and couldn’t do with royal icing. (For instance, when I first started decorating I tried to do the entire cookie INCLUDING a black outline in one single sitting. The next day I realized . . . "Oh, not such a great idea . . . That. Bleeds. Bad." )
Now when I see a cookie I have to do, I’m very aware of the process I feel most comfortable taking to achieve the best quality result. This process has come from so many mistakes, and so many lessons those mistakes have taught me, and of course I’m still always learning, too.
I really would love to start painting cookies more often. I love the look, and I think I would have some fun playing with this technique. I’ve painted a handful of cookies so far with only subtle gradients as the goal, but I really want to do a cookie far removed from my love the piping bag and pick up a brush for the entire thing.
EDITOR'S NOTE: About my tease at the top of this article - the reference to Mallory's first cookie set . . . betcha thought I forgot! Well, I didn't! I'm popping it in here to underscore Mallory's points about the importance of trial and error. Though a terrific first cookie set, I think it shows how style and technique can evolve, in a short time, with lots of practice and perseverance. Thanks to Mallory for being so kind to share this never-before-seen-in-public photograph!
JMU: So, you’ve been busy beyond cookie orders lately - I recently spotted two features of you and your work, one in Cake Masters Magazine and another in Sweet, I believe. And I’m sure there are others in the works. Plus, you just completed a series of cookie decorating classes in Spain – congrats! Are you surprised by your cookie celebrity? With your cookie business as busy as it already is, how are you juggling these added things and finding the necessary time for creating new designs?
MMC: I am definitely beyond surprised and extremely grateful every time these opportunities arise. As far as being busy, I am lucky enough for cookies to be my full-time "job". This is my life, and there’s always time for more decorating!
JMU: Let’s talk about teaching for a bit. About those classes in Spain – I think you taught classes covering both superhero and Afremov designs, right? Were your students really able to replicate your incredible level of detail in their cookies? How did you design the class and your instruction to ensure that everyone walked away happy with their finished cookies? I ask out of collegial interest, because one of the things I find most challenging about classes is ensuring that all classgoers (invariably of different skill levels) get through my more complicated projects with good results.
MMC: This round of lessons in Spain (my first!) definitely taught me just as much as I feel I taught the students. They were an absolute dream, and I don’t think it could have gone any better. I knew going into these courses that not everyone either (a) had a Kopykake or (b) could naturally draw, so I tweaked my personal methods of decorating and designing to fit comfortably within everyone’s range of talents and capabilities. There’s pretty much a fun and entertaining crafting class before we even get to the icing!
JMU: How do you think the cookie culture in Spain is similar to or different than that in the United States?
MMC: I had a lot of students from other parts of Europe as well as from Spain in my recent classes. From what I noticed, it seems like there’s a lot more activity happening in Europe as far as classes and interest in learning and experiencing as much as possible with sugar/cake art in general. Not that these things aren’t here in the United States, but there seems to be an abundance in Europe.
JMU: Is Cookie’sCool your next teaching experience outside of the United States? What planning or teaching takeaways from Spain will you be applying to this experience?
MMC: Yes ma’am! I can’t wait to teach in Italy. I think from my experience in Spain, I can gauge more accurately how long certain things will take with a body of students now that I have actually participated in a group of similar size.
JMU: And can you give us a glimpse into the projects you will be teaching there? How did you go about choosing them?
MMC: I wanted to make sure my projects for Cookie’sCool were a lot more technique-driven rather than tied to subject matter. I have a couple of really nice wet-on-wet projects that I think will work well with the class format we’re using and some very simple cute courses for those who aren’t as comfortable or as advanced with cookies as others. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The cookie below is a sneak preview of one of those "cute courses." Cute, indeed!]
JMU: You’ve had a ton of cookie success lately and I expect much more (I’ll ask about that next). But we rarely talk about our deepest, darkest cookie secrets here on Cookie Connection, so I thought – what the heck – you seem pretty daring (especially after revealing your first cookie set). So let's give it a shot! Do you have a cookie Achille’s heel? Or what’s been your greatest cookie mishap, and how did you recover?
MMC: Well, as I mentioned before, I’ll never start a cookie unless I’m absolutely sure I can draw it first and I’m very aware of the process I’m going to take. However, I HATE doing soccer balls! LOL!
JMU: Enough of the dark side . . . what bright new cookie ventures are on the horizon for you?
MMC: Oh, who knows! Every day holds a new venture, and I’m ready and willing to go full-force with each and every opportunity hurled my way. Keep an eye out for a number of new magazines coming out in the next few months, Cookie’sCool in November, and more European teaching dates for 2015 to be announced shortly!
All cookies designed, crafted, and photographed by Mallory Mae Chiavacci.
Cookier Close-ups is the place on Cookie Connection where we celebrate the change-makers of the cookie decorating world. Whether forging new enterprises, inventing novel decorating techniques, or consistently charming us with their cookie decorating prowess, each of our featured thought leaders has redefined in his/her distinctive way how we interact, create, or otherwise do business here in cookie space!
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