Hello! I'm Julia M. Usher, founder of Cookie Connection - a place to learn, share, and celebrate the art of cookie decorating! I'm so glad you're here! Before you dive into the site, I wanted to tell you a little more about who we are and how we came about, as well as share some important housekeeping rules. Please read this entire post (and re-read our Terms of...
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[EDITOR'S NOTE: As many of you learned this week, Jill will not be appearing at CookieCon as planned due a death in her family. We at Cookie Connection send Jill and her family our love and sincerest wishes for comfort and healing at this most difficult time. We also believe that Jill's messageof uplifting others - expressed here and in all she does in the cookie community - rings louder and clearer, now more than ever. With Jill's permission, we share these words from our earlier interview. ~JMU]
If you’ve never seen a Jill FCS (aka Funky Cookie Studio) cookie before (which I imagine is pretty unlikely given her large and loyal following), you’ll know when you do. Each and every one of her designs is brimming with so much whimsy and charm that your first instinct will be to grin from ear to ear!
In addition to being among the esteemed ranks of CookieCon 2014 presenters, Jill is actively involved in rallying the cookie community each fall to support the GO BO Foundation, an organization which brings hope and financial resources to children with life-threatening medical conditions. She’s also host to a rousing Thursday Throw Down each week on her Facebook page where she casts cookie love and visibility on cookiers across the globe.
Yessiree, she’s clearly got a lot of fingers in the cookie dough (so to speak). I’m eager to learn more about each of her cookie pursuits and I’m sure you are too, so let’s get started on this seventh (and penultimate) interview in our CookieCon series!
[EDITOR'S NOTE: What did I tell you? You're grinning from ear to ear, right?!]
JMU: Hi, Jill. We’ve unfortunately never crossed paths in cookie space, and so I don’t know much about you personally. But, from looking at your work, which is so filled with color and energy, I imagine you to be a life-of-the-party, outgoing sort! Is that true – is your cookie style a direct reflection of you?
JW: So nice to finally meet you, Julia! I am thrilled and honored to be featured in your series alongside such talented cookie artists. My cookie style is a direct reflection of my inner spirit, my joy, the way I see life; more so than my outward personality. I adore fun, but definitely am not the life of the party. I prefer to be in the background, you know . . . that person who sets the stage and lifts others up. I am a great straight (wo)man for all of my witty friends.
JMU: I read on the CookieCon site that you consider yourself more of a cookie “doodler” than a cookie “baker,” and that you’ve been doodling characters since childhood. Have you had any formal art training, and how did you go from doodling on paper to doodling on cookies?
JW: While I do not have any formal art training, I work in graphic design in my “real” career, so I do have a basic knowledge of design concepts. The artsy-fartsy world has always intrigued me, and I have spent countless hours admiring other artists' work. It is amazing how many resources are available and how generous the artistic community is in sharing their techniques and creative thought processes. I would like to say I am self-taught, but, in reality, I have had many teachers; they just don’t know it! The transition from paper to cookies was a natural for me; same idea, just a different medium.
JMU: How long have you been decorating cookies? And how have you cultivated your cookie decorating skills over time?
JW: I always looked forward to making decorated Christmas cookies; that’s it though. I only thought about it at Christmastime. It never really dawned on me to make cookies for other occasions until I stumbled upon Sweet Sugarbelle’s blog back in 2009 . . . which led me to Sweetopia and The Cookie Artisan and GeminiRJ and Sweet Tweets and Ali Bee's and LilaLoa and The Bearfoot Baker and Montreal Confections and Cookies with Character . . . ACK! . . . the list goes on and on. These incredible “teachers” were the ones who either taught me the basics of cookie decorating or inspired me to think beyond the cookie jar.
JMU: I know you’re actively involved in fundraising efforts for the GO BO Foundation and in sharing your and others’ cookie content on Facebook. But how else do you participate in cookie space? Do you sell cookies to the public? Online or through a retail shop? Do you teach your fanciful cookie decorating skills or write tutorials?
JW: I don’t sell my cookies; at this point, I just make them for family, friends, and charities as a way of paying it forward. I am not really sure where I “fit” into the cookie world since I don’t actually sell my creations or write a blog or do tutorials. I like to think that I am the cookie world’s biggest cheerleader. I adore the creative process and admire people who put themselves “out there” in the form of their artistic expression. My main purpose on my cookie Facebook page is simply to spread the cookie joy by sharing techniques I stumble upon in my cookie journey; to rejoice in other cookie artists' creativity, and to hopefully brighten someone’s day.
JMU: Well, you certainly have done that. I think your GO BO story is a real testament to the positive power of cookies. Can you tell readers how the GO BO Foundation became so near and dear to you, and how you and the cookie community help to support it each year?
JW: For many years, my husband and I had been visitors to Door County, Wisconsin (a quaint, artsy, outdoorsy community on the peninsula of Wisconsin, often referred to as the Cape Cod of the Midwest). On a random weekend visit to Door County, we noticed orange ribbons popping up everywhere. We asked around about the orange ribbons and were introduced to Bo’s story and his message: "Love each other, help each other, have your neighbor’s back." Fast forward to the subsequent summer . . . I follow a local Door County pastry chef on Facebook and noticed she was organizing a bake sale for the GO BO Foundation. I contacted the pastry chef, Sarah from FlourGirl Patissier, and asked if I could donate some cookies. Sarah enthusiastically replied, “yes.” This got me to thinking . . . this cookie community is so amazing and generous, I wonder if I tell Bo’s story and spread his message, I just wonder if they would be willing to contribute cookies to the bake sale. Bo’s story and message resonated in the hearts of this amazing cookie community . . . within days, we had a full-blown national bake sale in the works! Thus began the annual GO BO Foundation Bake Sale, funded by cookies made from these incredible hearts.
JMU: So, just curious . . . how much money was raised last year by you and the cookie community for GO BO? Did you ever think this was possible? And what are your hopes for GO BO for this coming fall?
JW: What began as a simple act of spreading a young boy’s message to a loving and generous group of cookie artists has resulted in raising $5,000+ the first year and a whooping $21,000+ the second year for the GO BO Foundation. Honestly, I knew Bo’s message was impactful and I knew the GO BO Foundation’s mission was honorable, but I never expected the enthusiastic response that the bake sale has received. It has become more than just donating cookies . . . it's become a group of cookie artists uniting around a common cause for the greater good. I think that pretty much sums up the incredible hearts of cookie artists worldwide.
JMU: I’ve been hearing a lot about your Thursday Throw Downs on Facebook. What are they and what is the goal you have for them? Can anyone participate?
JW: Facebook began limiting the content that appears in people’s newsfeeds, which frustrated a lot of cookie artists. After talking about the Facebook changes with some cookie artists, we brainstormed and came up with the idea of hosting “share” days so we could all see each other’s work on a consistent basis. Thursday Throw Down is a chance for other cookie artists to showcase their work based on a particular theme for that week. It is open to anyone who would like to participate — the more the merrier! What started as a simple workaround to a particular challenge has morphed into a day of inspiration — seeing how one theme can be interpreted in so many unique ways.
JMU: Onto more cookie design talk – the stuff we both love! I marvel at your designs, because they‘re so much more than just representations of things; they really convey fully developed stories! How do you come up with the ideas for your designs? How would you describe your creative thought process?
JW: Awww, thanks, that is exactly what I try to do with my cookies — tell a story. My thought process in creating cookie sets goes something like this . . . I am presented a theme; I think of things that represent the theme and then try to weave the “things” into a story. It is probably easiest to explain my process by citing an example. A friend of mine has a summer birthday . . . summer = sun, watermelon, picnics, ants; birthday = party, fun . . . let’s try to tell a story about a bunch of mischievous little ants having a party at a picnic . . . [EDITOR'S NOTE: . . . and TA DA!]
JMU: Your designs tend to use a lot of whimsical cartoon-like characters outlined in black. What draws you to these characters apart from their obvious cuteness?
JW: I like silly, happy, and joyful designs with minimal, yet striking lines. The whole black-outlined style was influenced by . . . coloring books . . . see, I told you I never went to art school!
JMU: Even with the use of black, your designs are always so crisp, sharp, and poofy, with no signs of bleeding colors or craters anywhere! What are your tricks for achieving such flawless results?
JW: Ugh, the dreaded color bleeding and cratering issues — the bane of all cookie artists! Three little words that changed my cookie world: PORTABLE. HEATER. FAN. I think Callye, from Sugarbelle, was one of the first to use an oscillating fan on her cookies. I think Anne, from Flour Box Bakery, was the first to use a heat gun on her cookies. I think Samantha, from Flour De Lis, and Georganne, from Lilaloa, both were innovators in using dehydrators on their cookies. For me, I have found that combining the properties of air movement and heat to create a “quick crust” on royal icing immediately after flooding almost completely eliminates both color bleeding and cratering issues, while increasing the sheen of the royal icing. Another benefit to the quick crust method is that it allows me to work much quicker (i.e., reduces the wait time between steps in the cookie decorating process). I flood the cookie, or area of the cookie, and immediately place it near a portable heater fan that I use exclusively for cookies. Depending on the consistency of the icing, it can take anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes for the royal icing to achieve a quick crust.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Can you see what I mean? The poof and the sheen. Plus, zero bleed!]
JMU: No matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to do cute and whimsical too well. What tips can you offer to decorators who want to add a little more whimsy and fun to their work?
JW: Funny thing, no matter how hard I try, I can’t get a handle on beauty and elegance like you do in your designs, Julia! [EDITOR'S NOTE: Hmmm . . . I beg to differ. Those turquoise pieces we just saw certainly qualify as beautiful and elegant!] We all have our little niche, but I also think it is cathartic to artistically stretch oneself beyond the comfort zone every once in a while. I think just letting myself go, forgetting all of the rules, looking at things from a “what if” perspective, and reminding myself that frogs can be purple and that people don’t always have to have noses — in my imagination, at least — is how I tend to create whimsy.
JMU: Okay, I'll try to give those methods a shot. You make "finding whimsy" sound so easy, but I know it's not . . . You’ve created so many wonderful designs in what seems like such a short time. How do you keep the creative fires burning?
JW: Cookie decorating and cookie designing are my joy. That’s it, pure and simple. When I begin to feel a little burned out creatively, I take a step back, let it go, and remind myself that ideas always seem to come when they are least expected. (Some of my best ideas have come to me while scrubbing the floor!)
JMU: So true. Mine usually come while driving. I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite cookie of yours, so I’m going to put you on the spot! Which of the cookies you’ve made is your all-time favorite? And why?
JW: Oh, Julia . . . okay, okay, if I must, I think one of my favorite sets is the “Welcome to Holland” set I made for Kim of The Cookie Puzzle for Autism Awareness Month. These cookies were inspired by my neighbors and have a beautiful message. If you would like to read the story behind these cookies, it can be found on Kim’s blog, right here.
JMU: Last but not least, onto CookieCon, THE event of all cookie events! I know so many people are dying to meet you there! For those who can’t make it, can you tell us what your presentation will be about? And can you share some of the key messages that you plan to make in it?
JW: I am so humbled and honored to have been asked to present at CookieCon 2014. I am beyond excited to meet all of the cookie artists in attendance and really hope that I can impart a few golden nuggets that attendees can utilize during their own personal design process. In specific, my topic is twofold: finding inspiration and adding character to cookies. I will be approaching the presentation more like a brainstorming session or roundtable discussion . . . “Hey, friends, welcome to my kitchen, have a seat and let’s talk cookies.”
Inspiration for design is such an individual choice. What inspires me may not inspire the cookie artist next to me. My goal is to encourage cookie artists to embrace their inner “artist,” to help them figure out what inspires them and then look at the “why” something inspires them. Next we will get to the nitty-gritty, fun part — adding character to cookies. We will discuss finishing touches and techniques to add that little something extra to their design. [EDITOR'S NOTE: For a cookie case in point, just take a look at Jill's character-full set below.]
JMU: Is this the first time you’ve taught cookie decorating in front of such a large audience? How are you prepping for this event?
JW: Yes, CookieCon 2014 is the first time that I will be presenting the art of cookies in front of such a large group, or any group for that matter. I have done many work-related presentations, but this is a little different, it is . . . ummm . . . more personal. In preparation for my topic, I had to kind of look inside myself to find the “whys” of how I create. I always thought I just “do,” but there is something valuable in discovering the “whys” of your artistic process.
JMU: After CookieCon, what’s next for Jill FCS? Do you have any new philanthropic endeavors on the horizon? Will you be expanding into any uncharted cookie decorating arenas?
JW: I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say that 2014 has been a year of transition for me, both personally and professionally, and 2015 will mark the beginning of a new cookie adventure . . .
JMU: Thanks so much for spreading your cookie joy with our readers. What a pleasure!
All cookies designed, crafted, and photographed by Jill FCS.
Want to get to know Jill even better? Then visit with her online on Facebook or Instagram.
Also, not to be missed - quick links to previous interviews with other CookieCon 2014 presenters:
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!
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to get to know, please post requests in this forum. We'll do our best to round them up for an upcoming Cookier Close-up! Thanks!