Live Chat with Thomas Blake Hogan of Thomas Blake's Cakes
Next up in our Cookie Competitor Live Chat Series is one of the fiercest (yet nicest and most humble) cookie competitors around: Thomas Blake Hogan, first-place winner of Julia's 2017 competition and also of her recent televised 3-D Cookie Art Competition™ at Show Me Sweets. He's placed in many more competitions besides these two for both his cookies and cakes (over 40, to be exact!), so we're in for a big treat!
In the chat, we'll address how Thomas typically preps for competitions, how he travels with and sets up competition pieces (always a scary task!), which types of competitions (online, televised, in-person, etc.) he prefers, and much more!
To help you formulate questions for the chat, I encourage you to read Thomas' bio and list of (VERY impressive) competition accolades below! Please also review the following chat guidelines. We look forward to "seeing" you on August 24!
(1) Feel free to enter advance questions now by following the instructions at the top of this chat page. (As always, it's super helpful for questions to be logged early, so our guests are able to prepare answers beforehand and to field more questions during live chat time.)
(2) Please note that any advance questions will reveal one at a time, in the order received, only after the chat goes live. Do not expect questions or answers to appear immediately.
(3) Last but not least, as with all of these chats, you have a special opportunity to see inside the minds of some extremely talented decorators, so I encourage you to do your homework before jumping on the chat. Again, please review Thomas' bio and other information below.
Thomas Blake Hogan is a self-taught hobbyist who has risen through the ranks to become a multi-award-winning competitive sugar artist. Growing up in Missouri with an artistic family, Thomas always had a passion for creating. After graduating with a degree in musical theatre, he has made a career as a professional entertainer, most recently performing on several cruise ships. His introduction to sugar arts began when he was a teenager watching the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show (OSSAS) featured on Food Network. From the first time he competed at OSSAS, he was hooked. Each year he kept wanting to try new things and expand his skills. This desire led him to start entering the cookie category at OSSAS, and soon cookies became one of his favorite mediums. In the eight years that he competed at OSSAS, Thomas grew from a teen beginner to a professional-level sugar artist. Thomas continues to enter various competitions around the United States whenever possible. He has placed over 40 times in competition, including 25 first-place awards. Though he doesn’t limit himself to one category of sugar art, Thomas is making quite a name for himself in the art of cookies by having won several major awards recently*. He enjoys expanding the possibilities of what cookies can do. The thrill and challenge of competition constantly drives Thomas to grow as an artist.
*Thomas’ most prestigious accolades include:
2019 Julia M. Usher’s 3-D Cookie Art Competition™, First Place 2019 SoFlo Cake & Candy Expo, First Place in Cookie Category, Best in Show 2018 Frosting Creators Sugar Arts Showcase, First Place in Cookie Category, Best in Show 2017 Julia M. Usher’s Cookie Art Competition™, First Place 2017 Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show, Non-Professional Best in Show 2016 Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show, Non-Professional Best in Show
Welcome to everyone joining us as well! SO SORRY for the brief delay in getting started this morn. We were experiencing some technical difficulties, but all is cool now.
Before we get into Thomas' background and competition history, some quick housekeeping notes about these chats!
First, questions are answered in the order received, but they will not post to the public/viewable area of the chat until Thomas reads and answers them. We'll work through questions that were logged in advance first; then start working on questions asked live during the chat.
That said, please be patient and do not re-post the same question. It may take some time to answer your question, depending on where it sits in the queue. But I will personally make sure every question gets answered before we're through.
Okay, we're now ready to really get started! As a reminder, Thomas' bio can be found under the "i" icon at the top of the chat room, so please review it to get a quick overview of his many accomplishments. We'll, of course, dive deeper from there.
In a nutshell, Thomas has received many accolades in recent years (40 of his entries have placed in competitions!), not the least of which were his first-place pieces in my 2017 cookie competition at the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show (OSSAS) and his recent win in my 3-D Cookie Art Competition in St. Louis! Woo hoo!
And, here's his first-place entry in my 3-D Cookie Art Competition at Show Me Sweets in July! Spectacular, right?! Thomas was also one of the entrants selected to appear in the Food Network documentary filmed about my competition!
So, while you all are formulating questions, I've got a couple of my own for Thomas. Here goes . . . Thomas, please tell us how you've managed to develop your decorating skills to such a high level when sugar art isn't even a full-time occupation for you?! (Everyone, Thomas is a professional entertainer, most recently aboard cruise ships.) How do you find time to develop and/or practice new techniques?
My decorating skills have grown simply because I compete as much as I can. I don’t make orders for customers, so I am able to devote my free time into creating new and detailed works of art. My goal every time I compete is to create something better than my last. This has helped my skill level reach new levels. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t challenge yourself, you never grow.”
And can you explain your typical preparation process that goes into a competition like my recent one at Show Me Sweets? How far in advance of the competition do you begin? What's the first step in your design process, and how do you go from there to finished piece?
I’m obsessed with sugar arts! Almost any free time I do have outside of my career I devote to planning for my next competition, and designing my next pieces. I considered myself an artist by any standard, its just cookies and sugar are my medium of choice now. However, I don’t have much time to practice new techniques when I commit to a competition. I usually just jump straight into trying different ideas until something works, or edit as necessary if something doesn’t go to plan.
I usually begin preparing for competition by finding inspiration. I have a long list of things that I see that inspire me to create sugar art. I keep this list handy whenever designing for competitions because I can usually always have an idea that I can pull that will work with the specific show theme, yet still be something that speaks to me as an artist.
Because my process goes extremely slow. I usually like to give myself at least a month to make a complicated entry. For Show Me Sweets, that piece had so many components. I ended up working on it for close to 8 weeks!
Congratulations on your recent win. Wish I could be here live. Thomas, the bird you constructed is beautiful. How do you make your own molds for baking the cookies? I've been successful using tubes, spheres, etc., but that custom shape?!
First step in my design process is finding reference photos. Sometimes I will do a thumbnail sketch if the design has a complicated layout. When it comes to cookie pieces there has to be a little extra planning involved. Cutting out custom patterns, stencils, etc. is essential to make it all fit together. Cookie construction can be quite complex and drawing everything out to scale is essential because it is difficult to change the shapes of cookies once they are baked.
Thank you, LisaAnn! When it comes to custom baking molds for making contour 3D cookies, I will sometime make a mold by building up aluminum foil which can be difficult to get a smooth surface. For my toucan, I tried a new method. I sculpted aluminum wire mesh to the shapes I needed and baked on top of those. I filed down the edges of my cookies so they would fit together as I assembled them, and I used lots of royal icing to strengthen and reinforce the cookie structure.
I wish I could be here live. You have done amazing work and I've read an interview where you've mentioned that you've won mixers, cake and cookie supplies, gift cards, ribbons, etc. This is great fun, but contests give experience with other cookiers and ways to sharpen skills. How do you find these contests to enter? Then once you get better, how do you find the ones that are at the next level? Thanks for your time. I wish I could be on the chat. I love your work.
One of the neat aspect of competition is getting to meet fellow sugar enthusiasts from all over the world. You can learn a lot about the cookie communities and competitions that exist all over the country. You eventually learn there is kind of a competition circuit throughout the year. I also do a lot of research online to find sugar art shows and cookie competitions.
I don't remember that class either, but I'll take a stab at your question about beginner 3-D cookies too, while Thomas does the same. I think basic, small house constructions are one good place, or anything that consists of all flat pieces. It's harder to start shaping cookies in unusual ways.
So I am in the process of moving my cookie art competition somewhere else - again. I would like to house it in an existing show, as I don't want to deal with the logistics of procuring the space and . . .
I should say I am head COOKIE judge there. The NJ show has different people heading up the different judging categories, which makes a lot of sense to me. I think it's best to have those who live and breathe a certain discipline heading up their respective categories.
The toucan was definitely the most challenging part. Trying to figure out how I was going to shape the cookies. I also had trouble figuring out how I was going to make the bird perched on the end of a book.
Welcome, GingerbreadGrandma. Glad to have you here. Any questions for our esteemed guest? If so, just type them in the box at the bottom of the left side of the chat discussion and hit the blue "Post" button.
Thomas, I live in Joplin and we frequently go to Kansas City for the weekend. Do you ever have any cookie events there even on a small level for the locals or suggestions on cookie shops in KC I should visit.
Let's talk a bit about what it was like to be followed by Food Network producers at my competition . . . what were the best and worst parts about that experience? How did them following you impact your normal competition prep, if at all?
Being followed by the Food Network was an interesting experience. It added a little extra pressure to try and do the best work possible. The toughest part was trying to act natural. Often times in interviews they lead with very pointed questions to get me to say things that would be out of character. I really wanted to be true to myself
I will say being on a documentary style show didn't really affect my normal competition prep, which is wonderful. I'm not really interested in doing the drama filled time crunch challenge that often exist on TV
When judging such high caliber entries, judges tend to naturally look for flaws to help distinguish the pieces, but they didn't want that to diminish/overshadow the positives we actually verbalized about each piece.
I think the network is enamored with 3-D (vs. 2-D) as it shows bigger (and possibly better) on TV. I tried to convince the producer of the documentary to cover the 2-D part as well, but they just wouldn't hear it.
Thank you for being here!! I have followed your work for a while now, Thomas 😊. You are incredibly creative and so talented. Not only is your work detailed to perfection, it is totally unique!! As you've said, you have a list of ideas that have come to mind for potential projects down the road. Do you begin your creative process with research, and then turn to sketching? Once you've started decorating, do you ever get stuck with a particular technique that isn't working like you thought it would?
If so, do you change your direction midstream and do any decorating "on the fly". I don't always foresee potential construction problems. Do you have an art or engineering background? Your work is masterful!!!
I just extended the chat time a few minutes to make sure there's time for Thomas to address Carol's question before the chat automatically times out at 11:15 am. I know Thomas is super busy with rehearsals right now so I don't want to keep him longer than planned.
What about these parts of Carol's questions: Once you've started decorating, do you ever get stuck with a particular technique that isn't working like you thought it would? If so, do you change your direction midstream and do any decorating "on the fly". I don't always foresee potential construction problems. Do you have an art or engineering background?
Thanks to all who participated today too! We won't have a chat in September due to my heavy class and travel schedule, but I do have a DOUBLE FEATURE planned for October 5. We'll be kicking off our 2020 CookieCon chat series with Georganne Bell at 10 am, and then be concluding this Cookie Competitor Series with Leslie Marchio, second place winner in my competition, at 12 noon.
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