Sometimes a personality or product becomes so recognized that the brand name turns into common vernacular for all such similar things (like “Kopykake” as shorthand for “projection device” or “KitchenAid” for “stand mixer"). Other times, one can barely distinguish the brand persona from the real, live person behind that brand. Such is the case with our next and final featured CookieCon speaker, Mistress of CookieCon Ceremonies Arty McGoo (aka Elizabeth – or Liz - Adams to the non-cookie world)!
Elizabeth has become admired the world over for her enchanting handpainting on cookies, and also for the colorful personality of Ms. McGoo who often appears sporting retro regalia on her popular blog and Facebook page.
Here in this interview, I’m digging deeper than usual to get to know the real Liz and all that inspires her and her grand cookie art. Enjoy!
JMU: Hi, Arty – oops, Liz! It seems like just yesterday that we met in California at one of my events and later at the first CookieCon in 2012. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us at CookieCon this year!
So many people know you only as Arty McGoo, the playful persona projected in your blog of the same name. How is Arty similar to Liz? Or is she a different woman altogether?
EA: Hi, Julia! It’s going to be great to see you again. Thanks for having me over here to your place today.
Liz and Arty . . . I think of Arty as me, only magnified. She wears lipstick and is more outgoing, more bubbly, more over the top (especially in her style of dressing). While I am all those things and love the 50s style, I tend to be a little shy, and she gives me the excuse to let my quirky show and be more comfortable with myself . . . and wear lipstick.
JMU: When did you start blogging, and was your initial intention to blog about cookie decorating or did cookie decorating come after starting the blog on another tack?
EA: I started blogging in February of 2010 and I created my blog to keep track of my creative pursuits. It was a journal of sorts, dedicated to projects and crafts I was doing as I tended to jump from art medium to art medium. I chose the name because I thought it was funny and showed that, while this blog was to be an “artistic” space, I don’t take myself too seriously. The cookies came later.
JMU: So, what or who turned you onto cookie decorating?
EA: Ironically, my first blog post IS about cookies. My sister and I decorated cookies together, but we didn’t know what we were doing. I Frankensteined some sort of concoction to decorate with, and we had fun and the cookies tasted great, but I don’t consider that my first foray into cookie decorating because the frosting was neither glaze nor royal. I don’t know WHAT that stuff was!
It was months later in October, when I was putting together my daughter Sage’s seventh birthday party, that I decided a decorated cookie would be a great birthday favor. I found a booklet that came with a set of Wilton tips and also had a recipe for royal icing that used a weird ingredient called meringue powder. It showed different techniques, and I got to work making large polka dot monogrammed cookies. I loved the process and saw endless possibilities with this royal icing stuff!
JMU: You mention on your blog that you enjoy all forms of art – photography, papier mâchÉ, paper crafting, piano playing, etc. But you seem to expend most of your creative energy these days on cookies. Why is that? What draws you to cookies as an expressive art form?
EA: Cookies encompass so many art forms: design, baking, painting, photography . . . they’re all included in the cookiesphere. When I create a set of cookies, I want the person looking at them to feel something. That is the most important part for me: to convey an emotion through color and imagery, and even textures. I enjoy communicating through cookies.
JMU: And why did you choose handpainting as your dominant cookie decorating technique?
EA: I think handpainting chose me. The first time I painted on a cookie was March 22, 2011. Ha! (I was so excited that I immediately blogged about it!) I had decorated a handful of sets at that point and found myself wondering, "How can I get more detailed? How can I spend less time mixing colors?" Then came the thought, "I wonder if I could paint on a cookie?" I grabbed all my little tubs of food coloring and a couple of leftover cookies and immediately fell in love!
JMU: Handpainting is SO intimidating to SO many. Yet you’re clearly a master. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Just take a look at her painted butterfly and paper doll set below!] What did you do to cultivate your cookie painting skills – or were you just born with the painting gene?
EA: Ha ha! You know, I WAS born with the painting gene! I am a completely untrained hack, but I have such a passion for it and I have learned a lot of things along the way. I hope that what I just said is not discouraging, because I know people can develop painting skills.
JMU: As a corollary to my previous question, what top three tips would you give to cookiers who want to overcome their fears of handpainting, or to further their skills in this area (if they're already fearless!)?
EA: A blank cookie canvas can be very intimidating! I would suggest starting by doing a cookie in your normal fashion (a design with texture or dimension would be ideal); then take some brown food coloring onto a damp paintbrush and just put the color into the creases of your design. Clean off your brush, dry it, and soften the edges of the color with your brush. That little technique will add so much dimension and is great for aging and antiquing. It’s all about getting comfortable with your tools (paintbrushes) and your medium (food coloring).
JMU: Are there any must-have brushes or other tools for handpainting that you would recommend to beginners?
EA: If you have these two brushes you can do anything:
- The rounded filbert. It blends and lays down color beautifully, because there are no straight or harsh edges. I have a range of sizes, but mostly use the 1/4-inch wide size.
- Liner/detail brushes. These are those teeny tiny brushes that have a couple of fibers. The key to a good liner brush is a very fine tip that is not frayed. Fraying = frustration. Some liner brushes are long and some are short. I use both. I find the long ones are great for cursive and other continuous line designs, because they hold more color and you don’t have to reload right in the middle. The long bristles are a little harder to control, so these brushes takes practice. The shorter liner brushes are great for details.
Brushes don’t have to be expensive to be good quality. I find mine at Michaels for about two to five dollars in the artists' section, where I select them individually. Don’t forget your coupon!
JMU: So there have been some very exciting developments in your cookie life over the last year. You’ve gone to Genoa, Italy to teach cookie decorating AND you’ve started your own cookie decorating school called, McGoo U. Let’s start with the Genoa teaching experience. How did that come about and what were the biggest lessons you learned from it?
EA: Teaching in Italy came out of the blue. I’d never taught before, and I’d never been to Italy before. It all started with a message through Facebook from a lovely lady named Serena. She asked me if I’d like to teach at All-In-One, which specializes in teaching the art of cake decorating . . . in Italy . . . Um, YES!
It was a HUGE and wonderful learning experience for me. The students were amazing, wonderful, talented women, and Serena, Laura, and Paolo (our hosts) took amazing care of us. (Angela of Oh, Sugar! came with me and was a huge help). The biggest lesson I learned from it was to be flexible. I had only cookied in my own home using my tools and my oven. Baking in Italy was very different, and we had to think on our feet. The other thing I learned was that teaching decorating is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I’ve ever done. I will never forget the experience or the beautiful people I got to meet and cookie with.
JMU: And when did you start McGoo U? How often do you teach those classes and how are they structured?
EA: I announced my first McGoo U course right before I went to Italy in November. I had wanted to teach classes for quite a while and I figured it was now or never. I set a date for December and went with it. I offered two Christmas classes in December, but because they filled up, I added a third class. I did the same for January, and it has been a blast! I took off February and March, because I knew I would be getting things ready for CookieCon.
Structure??? What’s that? Ha ha. I pick a theme, I make a set of cookies with as many techniques as I can stuff onto them, and we get through as many cookies as we can. There is always a range of abilities in class - some people are cookie-ying for the very first time and others have been at it for years. Yet they all have beautiful results. It has been amazing, and I’ve made so many wonderful friends.
JMU: Do you have more McGoo U classes in the works, and, if so, where can readers find that schedule?
EA: I really want to do a class every month, even through the summer while we are on vacation and take McGoo U on the road. I need to nail down the schedule and cities, and hopefully soon I will have a new home (internet-wise) where all the details, checkout, and upcoming events will be in one spot.
JMU: What tips would you give to cookie decorators who are aspiring to teach either in their own country or internationally? Any key dos and don’ts?
EA: Prep is a killer! No matter how long you have to prepare for the class . . . it’s not enough! Do everything you can ahead of time. How long does it take to mix and bag frosting? Multiply that by your number of students and add an extra 15 minutes, because inevitably something will go wrong. There is an added complexity to classes, because when you are decorating on your own and you find your consistency is a little off, you can doctor it up, re-bag, and continue. You don’t have that option when you have three to four bags of frosting per person, and you have a set amount of time to decorate.
When teaching internationally or outside of your home, be very specific with what you need your host to provide. Colors, tips, bags, cookie sheets . . . you can’t be too detailed, and you can’t assume they have the tools you need.
But most importantly: have fun! One of the best things about teaching is getting together with a group of people who are excited to be there. They come in as strangers and they leave with beautiful cookies and beautiful friendships. I know that sounds so cheesy, but it is true! Something about decorating elbow to elbow with others really draws people together!
JMU: You’re on the cusp of ANOTHER great teaching experience at CookieCon, where you’re the emcee. What a terrific honor! At the last CookieCon, you brought the house to tears with a delightful cookie decorating video (which can be viewed here). Do you have any similar – or different – surprises in store for CookieCon-goers this year? Can you give us a glimpse into what you plan to address in your opening remarks?
EA: I will never forget that moment at CookieCon. I’m tearing up just remembering the feeling in that room! So humbling!
This year . . . it is going to be CRAZY! I have had a year to let ideas marinate and to prepare, and I really let my imagination go wild. Making all the elements for the keynote has been quite a team effort with Mr. John and local friends helping me a ton to pull everything together. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Mr. John is Liz's name for her husband - sort of her Arty McGoo counterpart.] I don’t want to give anything away, but this year’s presentation is going to be very different and a lot of fun. If I were to describe it in one word, I think "ridiculous" fits the bill! [EDITOR'S NOTE: Okay, so I'm guessing cookie fireworks or a release of cookie balloons . . . I wish she'd given us more to go on, but no matter, I'll be there with bells on - and camera in hand - to document it all for Cookie Connection!]
JMU: Will you also be teaching at CookieCon? How, if at all, will your recent teaching experience in Italy or elsewhere affect your teaching approach at CookieCon?
EA: This year is a whole new lineup of incredible teachers, so I am not teaching this time, but I am happy to help and to answer questions, and will be roaming the room during open decorating. I am so excited to go to all of the classes!
JMU: We have many aspiring cookie decorators as members of Cookie Connection, so I’ve asked this question of most of the other CookieCon presenters. For those readers who (sadly) can’t make it to CookieCon, what are your best tips for improving their cookie decorating skills?
EA: Learn as many techniques as you can! The more techniques you are comfortable with, the more you can communicate through cookies. Some themes call for a fabric look, which immediately in my mind, I associate with a wet-on-wet technique. Other themes call for texture or antiquing. If you don’t have those skills in your arsenal, it’s like you're missing an opportunity. Trust your instincts and try something new! The worst that could happen is you get to eat a couple of cookies.
Also, believe in yourself! Whenever a cookier says to me, “I’m not artistic,” I just want to shake her (or him) and point to one of her cookies and say, “YOU made that . . . out of SUGAR!”
JMU: With all the recognition that you’ve received for your cookie work both here in the US and internationally, it’s hard to believe that you have much left to accomplish in the cookie decorating world. Do you have certain techniques that you’re dying to master – or develop? Or other grand cookie plans in the works after CookieCon? Do tell!
EA: I have so many things I want to try and new ideas. Usually my cookies start out as “I wonder if . . .” So I want to keep wondering.
I have several possible trips this year and I feel so blessed. I love what I do, I love teaching others what I do, and I never imagined I would or could do any of this. I am beyond grateful!
Thank you so much for having me. See you SOON!
JMU: Thank YOU!
All cookies designed, crafted, and photographed by Arty McGoo.
Didn’t get enough of Arty – or Liz? You’re in luck! You can learn even more about her in our upcoming live (text-based) cookie chat on March 29 at 4 pm central. Click here for more details and to get your questions logged in advance. You can also keep up with her many creative pursuits online:
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!