Since 2012, I've had the pleasure of participating, in one way or the other, in the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show (OSSAS), founded by cake artist extraordinaire Kerry Vincent. Whether demoing, judging, sponsoring, or just perusing the edible artwork there, I've always had my decorating horizons expanded through my involvement in our country's finest cake - and now, cookie - show!
In 2015, I was surprised and extremely honored to have Kerry officially attach my name to the OSSAS cookie competition (now called "Julia Usher's Decorated Cookie Competition"). What this means is that I establish judging criteria, participate in the judging as I am able, sponsor the awards, and - most importantly - celebrate the winners each year - just as I am about to do here!
But . . . before I announce the very deserving 2016 winners and call for a huge round of applause, a few words about the challenge they undertook. This year, the show's theme, established by Kerry, was "Mad About Metallics", and the cookie competition required that entrants make at least 12 wedding-themed cookies using edible metallics in various forms. Entries were judged across five criteria, including (1) fit with show theme, (2) number and difficulty of techniques used, (3) mastery of those techniques, (4) originality of design, and (5) overall appeal. Three prizes were awarded with a grand total of $1,750 in cash awards!
As way of introduction to the three winners, I asked each to briefly answer nine questions (which you can see in the attachments at the end of this post), and I've compiled their responses below! Enjoy, and congrats again to these very talented ladies!
Third Place, Dawn Parrott of Dawn Parrott Designs, Cypress, Texas, USA
I have been decorating for about 16 years - cookies off and on throughout. They have not been my specialty, but as royal icing is my main medium, it naturally lends itself to cookies. I have my own business as a sugar arts instructor, as well as a line of products. I travel to teach, specifically the art of piping. I use most mediums, however, royal icing is by far my favorite. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Dawn is being very modest! She is a master sugar artist, 2015 Cake Masters Royal Icing Award winner, and 2014 OSSAS Grand National Wedding Division Grand Prize winner.]
My father and step mom did cakes when I was a kid. When I first moved to the US and was not able to work, I stumbled upon a Wilton course kit, and I began to teach myself the sugar arts. Decorated cookies have always been a way to show great skill in little packages. What better way to practice and hone your skills?
Cookie decorating can be challenging in different ways. First, the size. I am used to working on large pieces and cakes. To put myself in the mindset to make miniature pieces can be very challenging in itself. But the biggest challenge is making it [the cookie design] look appealing to the eye, but not overwhelming!
This [show] was the first time I entered the cookie division at OSSAS. I generally run out of time working on the Grand National [cake competition]. But this theme sounded fun and, once I had a concept, it was all go. I had to research my idea and then try to translate it through cookies. The entry had to be related to weddings and "Mad about Metallics". So I was thinking of gilded picture frames, since every bride displays lovely photos of her wedding. Then Pinterest kicked in, and I saw that designers are now doing these empty picture frame wall collages. Add in my piping skills, and gilded frames were it. Now the display! I created a wall by covering a 2 x 2-foot piece of wood with red fondant on the top, which I textured to look like wall paper. The bottom half was covered in white fondant and embossed to look like wainscoting. The cookies all varied in shape and size. First, I covered each one in black fondant, using the cutter used to cut the cookie. Then I piped various textures/patterns on each cookie in royal icing. Once the icing dried, I painted it all in black airbrush coloring. Then I used three different metallics - bronze, silver, and gold - to get my metallic finishes. The finished cookies were adhered to the board with chocolate.
[The most challenging parts of pulling off this design] were time and trying to come up with ideas to make each cookie appear different. Also, trying to get the size of the cookies to look correct in relation to the wall size. [If I could do it all over again], I would allow more time to make different patterns for the cookies. But, overall, I was very pleased and would not change much!
[Over the next three years], I hope to offer more classes about decorated cookies. I have made 3-D cookies in the past, but I would also love to explore them more.
Second Place, Malllory Mae of ButterWinks!, Richmond, Virginia, USA
I started decorating cookies in 2012. I’m a full-time artist - sometimes with cookies, and sometimes with other food or traditional fine art and digital mediums. I did a full-time cookie business for about three years, but I am slowly transitioning into approaching cookies as a fine art-business rather than as an edible one. Cookie decorating brings me the love and freedom I experience when approaching traditional fine art mediums, [which was] nothing I had experienced while decorating cake.
[I first got started in cookies when] a cake-client of mine asked for cookies to go along with her order. My mom had known about decorated cookies, but I had never even heard of them. She assured me we could do it. I made up a parchment cone and absolutely fell in love with the medium (much more than cake). A few weeks later, my mom assured me our business could stand on its own with cookies alone - and that one day we’d be the "cookie ladies"! I didn’t believe her, but sure enough our business blew up.
This was my first time [at OSSAS], so I prepared by not giving myself enough time to prepare, taking on far too many gigs on top of it, and trying to go way bigger than I had ever previously done. I prepared by hating every step of it, constantly doubting myself and my artistic abilities, and breaking my piece a million times.
My [OSSAS] piece evolved in my mind SO many times in the months leading up to the event. The only constant was that it had to be one of the tallest things in the room. (I succeeded in that!) Initially, I wanted to recreate Peter Paul Rubens’ St. George Slaying the Dragon, a painting that struck me to my core when I saw it in person for the first time. Then, I saw a series of statues the deeply inspired me. Then, I realized there was a theme, and I thought, "Oh, crap! I should probably rein it in some."
So, the theme was metallics, and I [ended up creating] this beautiful woman and named her Aqua Regia after the only solvent that can destroy the noble metals, gold and platinum. I gave her a story. She is the goddess of the earthly metals - she can both build and destroy if she so chooses. She is adorned with isomalt pieces, royal icing transfers, and cookies made to mimic every earthly metal man can find. I wanted her dress to look like both hammered steel and beautiful fabric, with metals and stones as accents. Chemical compounds are handpainted throughout the fabric and, for the most part, are the actual diagrams for various metals.
[The most challenging part was] putting the cookie and isomalt structure together on the show floor with only minutes left. (This later on bit me in the butt. Always give yourself WAY more time than you think you need.)
I have no idea [where I want to be in the next three years]. My end-game is something I struggle with constantly. Do I have a spot in the cookie world? Do I belong? Without going into one of my daily existential crises, I’ll try to answer without facetiousness. I’ve accomplished a lot of what I initially set out to do with cookies. I thought viral news articles, magazine spreads, being asked to events, etc. would boost and define my career. But here I am, not satiated with success, broke, and still figuring things out. What do I want? I don’t know. But, I think the fuzzy blur around the edges is starting to disappear, and things are starting to crisp up and get defined a bit, but I can’t say for certain just yet. Ideally . . . Three years from now: not broke. Personal goal: figure out what my personal goal should be.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Oh my, how I empathize with you, Mallory. Hopefully, it's at least some consolation to know you're not alone in those daily existential crises! On another completely unrelated note, Mallory shared some wonderful work-in-process shots, and I've attached a few below. They're definitely worth checking out.]
First Place, Anastasia Conyers of 1/2 a Stick of Butter Bakery, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Double congrats to Anastasia for winning first place in this competition for two years in a row! See her 2015 winning entry here.]
I’ve been decorating for a very long time and doing cookies since my kids were little. I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t bake. Cookies really started when I was stationed in Japan, wanting to create something special for my girls. Most of their friends still call me "the cookie lady". I've worked both as a full-time decorator and a sideline hobbyist for friends and family. Now that I'm retired and Oklahoma has passed the Home Bakery Act, I work out of my home doing decorated sugar cookies and other baked goods. Even though it can sometimes be scary being the one to make all of the decisions, it's still more exciting to know that I have the ability to do what I want. So if I want to take time off to attend a class or to compete, all I have to do is put it on the schedule.
It really was you, Julia, and Chef Blount at my culinary school [who first inspired me to try cookie decorating]. I was maybe three months into school, and Chef needed sugar cookies for an event the school was supporting. Ever the overachiever when it comes to learning, I just had to be part of it. She had a good sugar cookie recipe that didn't spread too much . . . and she recommended I read your book, Cookie Swap. It has been one of my go-to reference books ever since. After reading it, I looked at things differently . . . especially once I realized that I am not confined to flat cookies. Contoured cookies are my favorite to create. I guess it’s the wow-factor and people saying “that’s a cookie?!” that I love so much. As an electronics technician for twenty years, I really had no creative wiggle room - the circuit either worked or it didn't. So, for me, the idea of making something really cool and edible is literally a sugar rush that gets my inner creative artist running amok!
I used to think [the biggest challenge with cookies] was the size factor - anyone can go big, but not everyone can miniaturize what they do well in a bigger format. After attending other competitions and seeing other artists' work, I have tried to do cookies that are a bit larger, while maintaining my detail, but without letting the cookies get too busy.
[To prepare for competitions like OSSAS], I start with a sketch and an idea of what I think the cookies should look like, and then I look at what technique(s) would best achieve that look. This year, we needed to follow the show theme of "Mad about Metallics", so I decided to do a wedding set. A friend recently married, and I used her dress as inspiration and went from there. I knew I wanted these cookies to be different than last year’s set, so I purposely tried to design "girly" and "frilly" into my cookies. The double-sided cookies were definitely the most challenging part of my entry. The wedding dress and the shoes were decorated on both sides, and I had to be very careful not to smudge the first side when decorating the second.
[If I were to do OSSAS 2016 all over], I wouldn’t change any of my designs or processes; however, I would execute my planning just a wee bit differently. The naked cake cookie (bottom right, photo above) was done in buttercream like a real naked cake, and I froze the cookie for transport. Well, in the rush of getting everything packed, I left it in the freezer. My wonderful husband drove all the way home from Tulsa to get it for me!
Hopefully, my cookies will inspire people to take risks with the designs of their own cookies. [Over the next three years], I hope to work with some young bakers in my area to encourage them to keep baking and perhaps compete someday. And, of course, I have already started on my sketches for next year's competition! I feel like I am always learning, but perhaps I will teach locally some day, or perhaps host an open house/day of cookie sharing for cookie junkies.
And so I conclude this week's Saturday Spotlight! I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into cookie competition and the work of these fearless and talented competitors! I also hope you'll consider joining the fun at OSSAS 2017!