Since 2012, I've had the distinct pleasure of participating in the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show (OSSAS), founded by cake artist extraordinaire and TV personality Kerry Vincent. Whether demoing, judging, sponsoring, or just perusing the edible artwork there, I always walk away from the show feeling excited about the heights to which sugar art has grown over the years. The level of creativity and technical excellence, especially in the cookie part of this show, has sky-rocketed, as has the participation. This year, 58 decorators signed up to enter the cookie competition, with about 40 entries ultimately making it to the show tables two weekends ago. The collective body of cookie work on display was beyond anything I've seen in any cookie show anywhere - and I go to a lot of shows each year, and see a lot of cookies each day!
As you may or may not know, Kerry surprised me two years ago by officially attaching my name to the cookie competition at the show, which is now called "Julia Usher's Decorated Cookie Competition". What this means is that I establish its judging criteria and categories in concert with Kerry, manage the judging (when I can attend the show in person), sponsor the awards, provide feedback to those entrants who want it, and celebrate the winners each year - just as I am about to do here!
But . . . before the big reveal of the hugely talented 2017 winners, a few words about the competition and how it works. This year, the show's theme was "perfume", and the cookie competition required that entrants make at least 12 cookies in this theme, and that those cookies be "arranged creatively". No constraints were put on what "creatively" might mean. The cookies could be 2-D flat ones, or arranged into 3-D constructions. Really, the only limit was people's imaginations! And, as you'll soon see, their imaginations were boundless.
I had three highly esteemed decorators join me as judges. We independently evaluated each entry 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. I then tallied the scores, and we reviewed those rankings, discussing in great detail any close calls or differences of opinion before determining the final winners! It was a mighty rigorous process that spanned most of one day, from about 10 am to 4 pm, to be exact! Three prizes were awarded with a grand total of $1,750 in cash awards, plus other product prizes donated by Ginny Levack of @Creative Cookier (Thank you, Ginny!) and me and my partners at Confection Couture Stencils (aka Stencil Ease)!
Enough of my babbling! Onto what you've all been waiting for . . . the winners!
As way of introduction to them, I asked each to briefly answer ten questions, and I've compiled their responses below into narrative form along with some stats about their entries. Enjoy, and congrats again to these very talented decorators!
First Place: Thomas Blake Hogan (www.facebook.com/thomasblakescakes), originally from Columbia, Missouri, but recently moved to Kansas City, Missouri, USA.
Entry Stats: Entitled "Scent of a Starlet", Thomas' entry was comprised of six picture frame cookies with handpainted celebrity portraits, each about 7 x 7 inches; six smaller handpiped name plaque cookies standing in front of each frame to identify the starlet; and three life-size (about 6-inch-tall) 3-D cookie perfume bottles. Thomas worked on his entry for about three and a half weeks from start to finish, and the result was glorious . . .
More from Thomas:
I first started decorating in 2004 at the age of 16 after seeing OSSAS featured on the Food Network. My sugar arts passion is only a hobby at the moment, as my full-time occupation is as a stage musical theatre performer. I’ve worked at several regional theatres across the country and even internationally with some cruise line companies. When I have moments of down time, I’m always preparing for my next sugar art piece. It’s a wonderful way to express the visual artist in me.
The first time I tried cookie decorating was for the "Confections" category at OSSAS in 2005. After seeing decorated cookies featured in books and magazines, I really wanted to try. What I ended up making was very basic; I didn’t even know how to cleanly flood cookies. Yet I was thrilled to get a third place ribbon as an "adult beginner". I was hooked from then on and made a cookie entry the next three years I entered.
Cookies are unique, as they traditionally challenge you to create two-dimensionally. As someone who loves to draw and paint, I have always found cookies appealing in this way. However, there comes an additional challenge of taking something flat and making a three-dimensional structure with it that is fascinating as well.
I begin preparing for competitions by making sure I have a strong concept that I enjoy. So many things I see in life inspire me to make sugar art, so when I see something that catches my eye, I write it down and look up photos online. When I pick a concept I like, it’s then a matter of managing my time to execute the showpiece that I want.
My 2017 cookie entry was entitled “Scent of a Starlet.” The concept was actually an idea I had for the theme last year ("metallics"), but I didn’t have time to create it. I wanted to make a series of Hollywood portrait cookies and do a play on words to fit the theme, calling it “Stars of the SILVER Screen”. It was perfect when the perfume theme was announced this year, because it still allowed me to use the same concept. I picked six classic Hollywood actresses known for their beauty and used several reference glamour photos of them putting on makeup and perfume.
The 3-D perfume bottles were quite a challenge, as I had never done contoured cookies before. I had baked over 30 extra cookies on various objects to test out different perfume bottle shapes before I settled on the three shapes I used. Also, the paintings were a challenge; since I was doing portraits of recognizable actresses, I really had to focus on being precise to capture their likenesses.
Overall, I was very satisfied with my piece and wouldn’t change much about it. If I had the chance to do a process differently, I would have piped the picture frames in a dark color and then painted on edible metallic paint. It would have made an easier job of creating shadows than did brushing on petal dust.
Just within the last three years, things have changed a lot. I’ve gone from a virtual unknown in the sugar art world to suddenly being recognized by sugar artists I’ve respected for years, and I’m being expected to compete alongside them. I don’t know what the next three years have in store. Yet I hope to continue my passion more consistently, grow my skills for sugar art and cookies, and explore all the facets that this industry has to offer.
Second Place: Shelby Bower (www.shelbyelizabethcakes.com), from Houston, Texas, USA.
Entry Stats: Shelby's bathing beauty was 13 inches long, and submerged in isomalt "water" in a 5 x 7 x 11-inch cookie bathtub. The entire scene sat on a 2 x 2-foot base against a 33-inch backdrop. Not including the 783 tiny cookie floor tiles, the entry included about 21 cookies and 85 royal icing flowers! All in, Shelby spent two full weeks, of eight-hour days, on this project, so about 80 total hours. She reports that the tiles and tub took the longest, and, had she not been waylaid by flooding from Hurricane Harvey, she would have spent even more time on it! [EDITOR'S NOTE: The Cookie Connection team sincerely hopes that Shelby has fully recovered from the hurricane by now, and that none of her loved ones were affected.] Shelby's entry caught the judges' eyes on many levels, but she scored big on originality of concept and creativity, for reasons that should be obvious from the photo below . . .
More from Shelby:
I've been decorating sweets and cookies professionally for five years, but I started learning on my own in high school about 12 years ago. I'm currently employed full-time in my own cake decorating business, Shelby Elizabeth Cakes. My mother, Robin Cates, is my business partner, and we mostly make sculpted cakes, lots of sugar flowers, and unique cookies.
My friend Katie Jameson, who is an amazing photographer in Austin, asked me to make some cookies for a workshop she was hosting. The cookies needed to be pretty, because her students would be photographing them. At the time, I only made cakes, but I took on the challenge and made my first batch of cookies. They were a huge hit and turned out beautifully. Cookies have been a big part of our business ever since.
There are more limitations with cookies, which makes them more fun! Making 3-D shapes with cookies is a whole different ball game than with cake. I also make a lot of custom gingerbread houses at Christmastime, and you just can’t get the same look with cake.
When I prepare for competitions like OSSAS, I do a lot of pre-planning. I figure out the size of my project, do a lot of research on my concept, and do a lot of different sketches. All of my cookies are hand-cut, so I make all of my templates. There is lots and lots of prep work before the actual decorating gets started. Once I finish decorating, I let my piece dry for a few days and pack it up very carefully. We actually drove to Oklahoma, so we didn’t have to worry about shipping.
I love cookie-scapes, so I knew I wanted to create a scene with cookies. The theme "perfume" triggered a memory for me. A few Christmases ago, I visited my grandmother’s friend, who was probably 90 years old at the time. Her home was decorated in the rococo style, and it was mind-blowing. I thought of her bathroom instantly, because it had just a picture-perfect rococo style . . . intricate perfume bottles everywhere, handpainted wall panels, unique furniture, and a stunning bathtub. I thought recreating this scene would be a fun take on the perfume theme.
The most challenging part of my entry was definitely the bathtub. I had to create my own form for the cookie to bake on. I also made it with sugar cookie dough . . . though, the next time I make a cookie bathtub, I will make it with gingerbread, because the sugar cookie needed a lot of work once it came out of the oven.
With the feedback I received, I would focus more on intricate piping details. I probably would do the tiles bigger with handpiped details, and string work on the bathtub and around the edges of the curtains. To accomplish this, I would scale down the design a bit to accommodate the additional detail work. I would also make sure everything was a tad more polished and clean.
I am starting a Patreon page (www.patreon.com/ShelbyBower) where I will post cookie tutorials, templates, and classes. My goals in the future are to enter lots more competitions and to teach cookie and cake decorating internationally.
Third Place: Rebecca Hines (www.instagram.com/sugarandbruises), from Fort Smith, Arkansas, USA.
Entry Stats: The base of Rebecca's Victoria's Secret-themed entry was 18 x 18 inches, and contained twelve cookies measuring about 2 1/2 to 3 inches wide by 4 inches tall. It took Rebecca a month and a half (40 hours total) to finish her project between her two jobs. Says Rebecca, "If anyone wants to compete and feels like they do not have the time, it's in there somewhere! It's definitely a labor of love." The judges were particularly impressed with the range of techniques that Rebecca used, including everything from detailed piping and painting to fondant work and airbrushing, and the skill with which she applied these techniques. The black handpiped bottle was impeccable!
More from Rebecca:
I picked up my decorating passion in 2010, and attended The French Pastry School in Chicago in 2011. I mostly do cakes and specialize in fondant work, but I love challenging myself with royal icing work, especially on cookies!
I am currently employed full-time as a cake decorator at Confectionately Yours, a bakery (cakery) in Fort Smith. As an employee of a small business, I am responsible for a lot. Mostly, my day is spent doing novelty fondant work, recreating our customers' favorite things in life out of sugar. I enjoy seeing their faces when our edible art reflects what they love and brings their ideas to life.
One of my chefs at The French Pastry School, Nicholas Lodge, really inspired me to do cookies. (The recipe that I used as the base for my OSSAS decorated cookie entry was actually one I received from him at school.) I just adore mini art - tiny edible versions of life - and Chef Nicholas touched a lot on cookies even though it was a cake program. The cookie: a perfect home for mini sugar art.
Because cakes often involve large constructions, I find it easier to bring my ideas to life through cake. Cookie work really challenges me to find creative ways to display my ideas and inspirations on a much smaller scale. Because one is usually decorating each individual serving when decorating cookies, decorated cookies can also be extremely time-consuming.
Research. Research. Research. Since I love realistic looking cookies, like my perfume bottle OSSAS entry, a lot of my time preparing for competitions is spent on the computer, printing out and studying the details of the things I am trying to recreate - such as how the light touches these things, their shape, and their font details if they have writing. I study every detail before experimenting with how to create them.
The theme for the show this year was "perfume". I took it in the literal sense and knew right away I wanted to find interesting perfume bottles. I am a big fan of the variety of designs within the Victoria's Secret perfume line, and I found a good amount that fit into a coordinating color scheme of red, pink, gold, and black. Victoria's Secret is known for its angels (models) and of course its femininity, so that's why I pulled in the wings and the pink cloud airbrushing for the background of my display.
My entry was extremely time-consuming, because each bottle (cookie) was so different, and I just could not get the desired effect I wanted on one of the cookies in particular. After remaking that cookie a couple of times, my least favorite turned into my favorite! (The one with the delicate black string work.) That's the best part about competing. It pushes you not to settle for anything less than your best.
If I could redo my OSSAS entry, I would invest in more mini-Tupperware containers to mix all of my colors! It is amazing how many shades of pink and grey there are. On two bottle lids, I had to mix four different greys for piping and four different greys for flooding. And, remember, that was only for two lids! The process took 1 1/2 hours!
In the next few years, I would love to gain more cookie-friendly supplies. I have a lot of tools for cakes, but I have found so much inspiration after the pouring in of cookie entries at OSSAS this year. I have been glued to Cookie Connection since the show, and I just cannot wait to get to work for another competition.
And so concludes this year's OSSAS cookie competition recap! Splendid work, right?! I also find it particularly satisfying to see new, young faces taking the state of cookie art to unprecedented levels. Congrats again to this year's winners. I sincerely hope to see Thomas, Shelby, and Rebecca, and many more of you, pushing boundaries in next year's competition! Please check back to the OSSAS site regularly for the announcement of next year's theme and rules. Our usual Saturday Spotlight format will resume next weekend.