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Shades of Observation

The Mischief Maker shares her secrets for creating sugar flower cake masterpieces

 

By Alex Narramore

 

For a painting project in art school, I remember being utterly transfixed by the innumerable shades found in a blueberry. My teacher, while intrigued, was puzzled. She said it was odd because no one usually cares or thinks about a blueberry. I said, “Just look at all the shades in a blueberry. There are purples, blues, reds, even some turquoise or mint. Infinite!” Maybe I should have known then that I would want to record and recreate such things forever in some form or another. Luckily, I’ve found the perfect medium by painting and sculpting botanicals in sugar.

Alex Narramore.

I’m very inspired by the natural form of a branch or flower, much the same as florists I know. They let the natural form of the plant influence their eventual arrangement, altering them as little as possible. I do this too with my sugar flowers. I like a degree of wildness in my cake designs. I believe in chopping or controlling the natural habits of a flower as little as possible. This translates to gardening, too. Why everyone is obsessed with dwarf and miniature plant varieties is beyond me. I’m sure they are well behaved, don’t spread, their height is manageable and they’re quite predictable. But often, the extra height and wildness make the magic and interest. Sometimes, it’s good to let things be what they are, a little unruly, messy and mischievous, to maintain a beautiful order within the disorder. This adds interest and vitality to life. There is so much variety in flowers and the natural world, so it’s no surprise that flowers and plants are my preferred subject matter for my cake designs.

I put in a garden two seasons ago and it has helped immensely in giving me flowers to study. Even if the flowers die before I get to them, I take images and observe the more unique parts of them, details that can’t be easily found on Google. Going off images and botanical measurements alone, often never seeing these flowers in person, was a challenge as each individual flower part and petal is made and combined to make one sugar flower. Sometimes, I’ll sculpt a sugar flower and then want the real version to grow in the garden. Other times, I will grow something in the garden that simply begs to be made in sugar. The garden and cakes seem to co-exist in this way and I have a garden at each place I work.

My Mother and I create the sugar flowers, while my Dad and husband help with everything from cake deliveries, reaching a sugar flower to heights much too tall for me or coloring foliage. Otherwise, I have no staff and currently no interns. I started The Mischief Maker officially in 2013, but I have been making cakes since at least 2008.

We make our sugar flowers at my Mamaw’s in Eastern Kentucky, where I am from. There is a garden there, too. Mamaw’s is often total chaos, but most importantly, it is a place to think, take a walk and process life. Truthfully, I love to have fun and make a touch of mischief both in work and play. I would probably have to go on a mountain to get away and focus. Otherwise, I bake and design the cakes at my home in downtown Lexington. There I am always looking out the windows at the garden, thinking about what is working and what isn’t, paining myself over structure that is not properly there while simultaneously putting in more bulbs for next Spring, or deciding what interesting dahlias I will grow in the fall. I consistently re-examine past cake designs in the same way I do the garden, except there is no “try again next year” with my cake designs.

Before I started gardening, I only had a basic understanding of the seasons. It was based on the floristry industry and what you order for an event at any given time of the year. However, those flowers are flown in from all over the world, making many impossibilities a possibility, as each country the flowers are arriving from have different growing seasons. The cakes are much like still life paintings, where you can mix together anything you’d like. There is no seasonality. However, an understanding of seasonality is good to know so you can choose to disregard if you’d like and keep the accuracy if not.

Observation in all things is so important. I had another teacher in college ask us to name a visual memory that we had recently. I sat there blankly without an answer as everyone else recalled something that happened with the traffic lights or the light in the sky the previous afternoon. I realized then that I wasn’t paying attention to the small things. I was, at best, looking outward at the world at mid-level, eye level, rarely stopping. Do you really ever look at the ground, or the colors in a leaf, or the tops of the tree lines? Are you paying attention to what is in front of you, or is your total visual experience the quick blur as you get in and out of the car? There is so much to see.

I sculpt, paint and copy botanically accurate specimens from life and reference images in sugar. Sometimes, I deviate and reference paintings. I rely on my memory of how flowers move in the garden, how they feel in your hand. We sculpt and paint both by measurements and by eye. I think that’s what sets apart our wedding cakes and sugar flowers, observation.

A plant or flower simply has to strike us before we collage it into a design then replicate it. While I choose to sculpt and match colors in sugar, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t do so in another more permanent medium. I get messages about what brand of edible colors to use or what colors to mix to achieve a certain shade. There is no simple answer. I can grab numerous edible pigments from dozens of brands and still get the same result. I work on paper towels as a “palette” to mix all of my edible colors before I start to paint a sugar flower. I get messages about people wanting them or saying we should save them. I’m unsure about saving paper towels myself, but they do slightly resemble colorful little abstracts.

The sugar flowers are not fantasy. If we choose to go in a direction of fantasy and paint a flower like a painting, it is a conscious choice that still shows an underlying knowledge of the structure or type of flower that is being sculpted or painted. When I went to school for art, I thought that the elements of art and design would translate easily into cake and sugar work. There are sometimes more variables in making the cakes than in most mediums. You have the added factor of weather, humidity and rain because the flowers absorb moisture in the air like a sponge. The base cake structure must be delicious and will be eaten. This makes me the happiest of all. I love it best when the cakes are tasted and enjoyed.

The best part of this job is absolutely seeing something materialize, piece by piece, from your imagination while working. You essentially create a concept and work bit by bit combining colors, shapes and flowers to make this previously nonexistent idea, this daydream, a reality. Sometimes I stare at plain white sugar paste and cake pans, and it seems almost unbelievable that anything is made from them. Yet, how interesting it is that these elements can be combined infinitely to make anything you can imagine.

Each wedding cake I design is custom for the client and then retired, making each one special. Some advice I’d have for couples is to start with practical matters like guest count, budget and the overall mood for the event, and afterward, start observing, seeing and training your eyes. This can be done by looking, possibly at images of flower arrangements, a specific season, colors in a painting, architectural images or anything you desire that interests you. I go over images I receive from clients and pull my own images to send back to see what we are all collectively connecting with until we get to a place where I can pitch an idea. Observing, training your eyes and teaching yourself to pay attention is a good practice, not just for the cake, but also for the wedding and mood of the event as a whole, and possibly even for life in general.

This year has been difficult for weddings as there have been many restrictions and date changes due to COVID-19, but in times of strife, it is fantasy that keeps us going. Dreaming keeps us going. Should you downsize your cake to the look and scale of a cake that feeds 50, 30 or under 10? I say absolutely not if you don’t want to. No matter the number of guests you have, you are making a centerpiece for the event. You are giving them a second to gasp and dream, to focus on and observe the details, to relish in and savor the taste of the cake and to look at the shades in those sugar blueberries.