Wow! Wow! Wow! That's the best way to describe this year's Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show (OSSAS)! From start to finish, the show was full of surprises! Heck, it was surprising even before it got started!
OSSAS was founded back in 1993 by cake artist extraordinaire and TV personality Kerry Vincent, so 2018 marked its big 25th anniversary. With that anniversary came some extra media fanfare, which was the first of the many surprises. A few weeks before the show, Kerry called to tell me that a Food Network production team would be there to cover the wedding cake competition for an upcoming TV special. She urged me to seize the moment by pitching my cookie competition to these same producers, for a future cookie special. At the time, I was right in the middle of a video shoot, so it was easy enough to cobble together the following cookie competition demo reel, which Kerry and I promptly sent off to these producers.
Long story short, that surprise culminated in another surprise. I met with producers at OSSAS; we bandied about cookie TV show ideas; and I and several cookie competitors got interviewed. Those producers are now reviewing this material, and I'm waiting to see whether this flurry of activity will result in anything consequential. Fingers crossed! It's only right that cookies make it to prime time, don't you think?!
The next big surprise came at the show when I first laid eyes on the entries in my namesake "Julia Usher's Decorated Cookie Competition". We had a doozy of a theme this year ("modern classic") insofar as it was SO abstract - at least compared to themes of years past. In 2017, the theme was "perfume", which elicited lots of 3-D perfume bottles, as one might expect. But what on earth would people do with "modern classic"?! As it turned out: quite a lot! Below is just a sampling of the many wonderful interpretations that hit the show floor:
All of this brings me to the heart of this article and its raison d'être, which is celebrating the amazing winners of my competition at OSSAS 2018! But before I reveal these talented folks, humor me a bit longer as I share some context about how the competition works.
At the very minimum, each entrant was required to submit 12 cookies, in either a 2-D or 3-D display, which fit the show's theme. In addition, the work had to be completely fresh (never before seen online or in another competition), original (no copies of copyrighted art of any kind), and edible (inedible bases were allowed, as were supports and lights if they could be easily removed). I had two highly esteemed decorators join me as judges: @Creative Cookier, who also lent invaluable product knowledge, and Ceri Griffiths, a master cake decorator who's competed in and judged countless competitions. We independently evaluated each entry across eight criteria, including, but not limited to: (1) interpretation of 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 10:30 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!). I also tossed in the requisite show ribbons and engraved "silver" (actually, pewter) bowls in honor of OSSAS's 25th (silver) anniversary!
But, enough from me! Let's talk about the winners and their winning work! As way of introduction to them, I asked each to briefly answer fourteen questions, and, below, I've compiled their responses into narrative form along with some stats about their entries. Enjoy, and congrats again to these very talented decorators!
Entry Stats: A tribute to Aretha Franklin, Stacy's entry was comprised of 20 cookies arranged into a 3-D piano (sporting a glorious mirror glaze) and a marquee (complete with blinking lights)! But what impressed judges the most was the impeccable level of detail on the inside of the piano (see second photo below). It was fully decorated, down to the piano strings!
More from Stacy:
I’ve been decorating cookies “seriously” (albeit not always very regularly) for just over two years.
My mom has a knack for delicious desserts, so, growing up, we rarely went to an event empty-handed. I tried to adhere to that standard when I went off to college, mostly with undecorated baked goods à la mama, but there were a few pretty hilarious birthday cake attempts sprinkled in.
Then, for Thanksgiving a few years ago, I thought it’d be cute to make turkey cookies with a "why I’m thankful for you" note baked into each. As luck would have it, I found piping tips, couplers, bags, and what turned out to be the worst off-brand gel coloring ever produced on Craigslist for $25. Sold! No one choked on the notes, and the cookies were a hit . . . but then the supplies sat in my pantry for another year. Eventually another cookie decorating occasion arose, so I dug out my loot and gave it another go. The reaction was my inspiration . . . turns out people really like getting personalized cookies! I realized that, with a little creativity (and a lot of sugar), I have the power to create joy, and, truly, how cool is that?! Shortly thereafter, a friend heard about That Takes the Cake 2017 (Austin’s cake show) and encouraged me to enter some cookies. I laughed because, I’m just messing around. My boyfriend didn’t laugh though. He offered to pay my entry fee, and so I entered. And I won. A woman whose amazing winning cake I had been ogling asked what I did for a living. When I told her I was a web developer, she said, “Well, you shouldn’t be!"
So, yah, I code websites. It pleases the analytical half of my brain, but bores the artistic side, so I pick up a lot of creative hobbies to keep both lobes happy. No profitable cookie business, just a fun outlet for me . . . for now at least!
My OSSAS set was built with 20 cookies, and I gave myself two weeks to work on the actual piece - so two full weekends in addition to the three days of PTO (paid time off) I took. Prior to that, I was doing sporadic planning and experimentation: visiting the piano gallery to absorb all the angles I couldn’t get from Google, testing various gloss methods (first picture below), figuring out how to get a smooth coat of royal icing on such a funky shape (second and third pictures below), learning how to make a stencil and spread royal icing over it, searching for suitable piano key molds, etc. My goal is always to get all the kinks worked out before the actual start date (if that ever actually happens, I’ll let you know!).
The most exciting sets for me to create are those that make a statement - whether it’s about current events, a social movement, or a controversial topic. If I’m going to pour my heart into something, it’s crucial that I’m passionate about the message.
Aretha Franklin passed a few days after I registered for OSSAS. I had some ideas swirling in my head, but while driving to work, an NPR (National Public Radio) segment mentioned that she set her purse on the piano before every performance to ensure she was paid, and it struck a chord (pun!). I fear we’re regressing and dividing as a country . . . we could all stand to be a little more kind, a little more accepting. This piece speaks to equality and represents my desire for the classic virtue of respect to be upheld through the modern chaos, save history repeat itself.
The most challenging part of this design was . . . finishing. I’ve been trying to figure out which individual step was the hardest, but every single thing came with its own unexpected SUPER FUN set of obstacles - but that’s okay because (insert motivational quote about how hardships help us grow)! I’m Type A++ and easily frustrated, so, truly, not giving up when sh!t hit the fan was the hardest part of this piece. [EDITOR'S NOTE: From the looks of Stacy's gif below, I think the carving part would have been enough to knock me out!]
The outcome of OSSAS was better than I ever imagined, but if I had to do something differently, I’d make sure to incorporate Aretha into the piano itself. My initial plan (foiled by time) saw the underside of the piano lid painted with a “Queen of Soul” collage, but Julia’s suggestion of having an accessory (purse, coat, hat) strewn across the bench would have been an even lovelier touch. I was an OSSAS virgin prior to this competition, and, upon seeing the caliber of the show, I am both grateful I got to be a part of it and devastated I won’t get to again. [EDITOR'S NOTE: To understand Stacy's reference to not doing OSSAS again, please read about the show's final surprise in the postscript to this blog post.*]
Considering that, three years ago, I couldn’t have told you what “flood icing” was, I can’t begin to guess what road I’ll be traveling in another three years (but if cookies are on board, I hope it’s not bumpy). My goal is to keep learning and failing and brainstorming and trying again. I want to help push cookies into new territory and to create pieces that make people rethink their definition of what a cookie is and can be. A dream job would be getting commissioned to make big, crazy, OMG-that's-a-cookie creations that star as dessert table centerpieces at important events. (Seriously, just like ONE Kardashian baby shower is all it’d take to launch a career . . . DM me . . . any of you!)
Another goal is to share my passion. Art from the Streets is a brilliant Austin nonprofit that provides art studio sessions and supplies to the homeless community. Their work is sold at various shows throughout the year, which provides not just financial assistance, but self-esteem to the artists. I recently suggested adding a new medium to their arsenal - cookies! Just think: walking out of class with edible artwork that could be shared and bring that same sense of joy I witnessed from my own creations - eek! Fingers crossed that the details get hashed out and mini-classes can start next year.
Second Place: Shelby Bower (www.shelbyelizabethcakes.com), from Houston, Texas, USA, and also the second place winner of OSSAS 2017!
Entry Stats: Last year, Shelby wowed the judges with her oversized 3-D bathing beauty scene, and, this year, another glorious dame featured prominently in her 3-D "Modern Girl with a Classic Dream” piece, pictured below. This piece was comprised of exactly 12 cookies and used myriad techniques ranging from dimensional piping and painting (for the background curtain) to brush embroidery, airbrushing, and stenciling. All in, from start to finish, Shelby spent two weeks on this winner!
More from Shelby:
I've been decorating sweets and cookies professionally for six years, but I started learning on my own in high school about 13 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.
[I got into cookies when] 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 [than other sweets]! 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. I actually drove to Oklahoma, so I didn’t have to worry about shipping.
This year, I also spent a lot of time coming up with my design - and finding the perfect edible glitter for the dress! But, truly, my main focus was getting the theme right. I really struggled with this year's theme . . . I had a few ideas that I threw out the window. Right when I thought I understood the theme, I started to question myself. I was inspired by “classic dreams" - dreams that people have had throughout the decades. The stage may have changed, but wanting fame and influence has not. I was very inspired by the vintage images of showgirls sitting on crescent moons . . . [so] I used that classic stage setting and classic fashion, but mixed them up with modern colors and both modern and classic decorating techniques.
The most challenging part of my entry was the background curtain! I tried 3-D royal icing for the first time, and it is difficult to get right! If I were to do this year's OSSAS all over again, I would use more precision on the girl's face, and I could have been a little cleaner with my work.
As for where I see myself in the cookie world in three years . . . I will keep entering Julia Usher’s cookie competition! I would also like to be on a cookie decorating TV show and to upload more cookie design videos to my YouTube channel.
Third Place: Heather Brookshire (https://www.facebook.com/thecakewhispererusa), from Spring, Texas, USA, and also a past (two-time) OSSAS cookie competition winner. (You may remember her from previous OSSAS features as Heather Campbell!)
Entry Stats: Heather first impressed the judges at my inaugural show about five years ago with her dimensional hot air balloon-scape. This time, her deconstructed Tiffany-style gingerbread house, decked out for Christmas, caught our eyes. Heather's entry took 14 (8-plus-hour) days to finish, and was comprised of 61 (!) cookies of various shapes and sizes, many of which were hand-cut by Heather. From the royal icing lanterns straddling the front doors to the teeny sconces around the fireplace, Heather left no detail to our imaginations - they were all there, rendered in icing, fondant, or some other sugar form!
More from Heather:
I have been decorating sweets for 17 years. My love of cookies and gingerbread has been there just as long. I currently have my own business called The Cake Whisperer. I started this business after leaving my full-time bakery position in 2015. I always wanted to make cookies with my mom as a young child (we have pictures of me making cookies when I was three years old), but I didn’t really get into it fully until high school.
Large cookie pieces and gingerbread houses have always been difficult for me for one reason: humidity! I have tried many recipes over the years, but this year decided to take matters into my own hands. I really thought about why my cookies wouldn’t hold up in the humidity and made a few changes to my recipe. After several attempts, I think I’ve finally found a recipe that will stay crisp for more than just a few days.
As always, I really wanted to push myself to make a great entry for OSSAS and to outdo myself from previous years. It really took some time for me to wrap my head around the theme and to pin down what I was going to do. I had originally intended to make an entry that would have been completely different, but later thought it didn’t quite fit the theme. Having done a Wedgwood piece for last year’s competition, I started looking for Tiffany inspiration. I found a picture of the windows they decorate at Christmas at their flagship location in New York City, and dug deeper. I found a few different windows I really liked and was able to combine them into one cohesive piece. I feel that my ultimate choice of Tiffany fit the theme, because the brand is so timeless and recognizable. They are a classic company that is still very relevant in today’s world. I just love their famous Tiffany blue color too!
I had a few different pieces in my entry that gave me pause and caused more concern than others. I kind of knew what I wanted them to look like, but didn’t always have a clear picture in my head as to where to start. The pieces that gave me the greatest difficulty were the sofa, chair, and wall with the fireplace.
If I were to do this entry again, I would make the floor of my piece a little different, as I had originally intended to make each tile out of a cookie. As I prepared to put down the floor, I realized that, if made with cookies, it would have been too thick relative to the front wall that was already in place. I would also work on making the front wall sturdier and straighter.
As for my plans, work on my next competition has already begun! I will be traveling next to Asheville, North Carolina, USA for the National Gingerbread Competition. Gingerbread is my absolute favorite form of sugar art! I will then be preparing for Austin’s That Takes the Cake show, my “home” show since it’s the closest one to me. After that, I’m open to traveling to new shows (at least to me) such as SoFlo or CookieCon.
I will definitely continue to compete, because it pushes me to do new things, get better at the techniques I already know, and strive toward perfection. I would really like to create a piece so amazing that I win a Best of Division or Best of Show award, as I’ve never done that before. I also want to work on developing more new techniques to share with our wonderful cookie community.
Amazing entries, right?! Once again, I'd like to extend huge congratulations to all of these talented artists, and wish them much success in achieving their cookie dreams and aspirations. Based on what we've seen from them so far, I have no doubt their goals are well within reach!
* Now, for that postscript I mentioned . . . you know, the one related to Stacy's remark about not being able to do OSSAS again?! As it turns out, there was one final surprise to the show - and it was the biggest, by far. There wasn't a person at OSSAS who wasn't devastated (to use Stacy's word), shocked, or reduced to crying like a baby because of it. (I did the latter, but only once safely back in the privacy of my hotel room! ) I wondered why there was no grand balloon drop at the awards ceremony (as there had been at the 20th anniversary) or why champagne wasn't being poured to toast the 25th, and then, suddenly, those ambiguities all became crystal clear when Kerry announced the retirement of OSSAS, effective immediately and forever, at the end of the show!
Reflecting back on that shocker of an announcement now, I could easily fall into a downward spiral. (I mean, OSSAS set the standard for competition . . . no show could possibly replace it, and Kerry's shoes will never be filled . . .) But I choose to look on the bright side: we've all grown immensely because of the leadership and mentorship of one extraordinary woman (thank you, Kerry!), and we're all now better able to shape and seize our own dreams. Just as Stacy, Shelby, and Heather are already planning their next competition pieces, I too am planning the next "Julia Usher's Decorated Cookie Competition" with the hope that it will continue to elevate our community and this craft we all love so much. Come November, I will be announcing its new "home", and I sincerely hope you will join me there. As they say, THE SHOW MUST GO ON! ❤️