TAKING THE CAKE
Alex Narramore, Creative Director of The Mischief Maker, shares what inspires her edible artworks.
For me, flowers are forever. They are the source of everything timeless that exists. I am endlessly fascinated that I can buy the same roses that I find in ancient still life portraits, found in museums the world over, to grow in my garden at home. Flowers are as timeless as it gets. Observing flowers from the garden and illustrations and then sculpting and painting them in an edible medium, in sugar, is my passion. I want someone that finds a picture of one of my cakes 100 years from now to relate, find themselves transported, and dream, much like I find myself dreaming when I look at those beautiful paintings. The best works of art and the best cakes are visually soothing, composed, and perfectly imperfect, without a hair out of place.
It’s always been about making beautiful things more so than monetizing. It’s always been about making a connection to a client and bringing something to life for them, even if that means impracticality over practicality, I’ll go with whatever makes a beautiful result.
Without beautiful things, I believe that there is no reason to live. Some people think beautiful things are superficial and unneeded, that they are an unnecessary extravagance. I’ve often said that we could all live in brown plain rooms while wearing potato sack dresses, eat bland food, and carry around twigs instead of flowers if all that mattered was practicality and necessity. Wouldn’t the world be a dull, lifeless place? Beautiful things matter. They enhance our quality of life and our experiences.
My sugar flower cakes are much like real flowers. They are temporal. They are much better when made closer to the time that they will be used. They fade, much like real flowers. They are fragile, and that’s what makes them beautiful. There is no concern for seasonality or the use of a poisonous bloom. The sugar flower cakes are a fantasy where any flower in any color can come together to grow in an edible garden, crawling up and over otherwise structured tiers of the cake.
I think it’s hard in this day and age for a lot of people to stop and appreciate something so detailed and crafted by hand. They have to imagine every stamen, every petal, every bud, every calyx, and every color is made individually and combined to create a flower. Often hundreds of steps. Then each flower, each stem of leaves, is coupled to make an entire sugar flower arrangement. One cake. That being said, when someone buys a cake, it often steals the show at an event, as it is an opportunity, a centerpiece that seems to draw people toward it.
When people are confronted with seeing one of the cakes in person, the emotion of all of those hours spent toiling away comes together and imbues themselves in the sugar flowers, giving each a life and personality that stops people. They talk about them, and they appreciate finer things once again. That’s why I always say that clients that have witnessed this at a previous event often times make sure they splurge on a cake after. They know it’s going to be something their guests will not see or taste elsewhere. And not only are they beautiful, but you can also eat them afterward, and they’re delicious. There is magic in that.
As each year passes, I find myself appreciating “real” things, things made by hand. Tangible things that have emotion like a roaring fire, lit taper candles, eating dinner with the windows open, cooking in cast iron, the turn of a real page in a book, and my garden. You can’t go to Michael’s over an antique store to source an object with life. Or from a cake buying perspective, run to the grocery store and end up with something that emotionally arrests people. So, are you really saving money? In my opinion, you’ve lost out on all accounts. You lost the experience. Time and time again, I have heard people from all over the world say that emotion sets our cakes apart. A fellow sugar flower maker who flew in from Australia just to meet us at a class I taught said, “There is heart. There is emotion. That’s the difference.”
With every cake, I find myself thinking that it is my chance to make a masterpiece that really hits people “this time.” So, in the finished visual, if something is slightly messed up or if the sugar greenery isn’t what I think it should be, that it is isn’t rounded out color-wise, if the negative space is wrong, then the emotion does not come across, and I lose all of that time we spent making it just because one element is wrong. The finished picture is slightly off forever. That always drives me crazy, to stare at errors forever. I think if this negative space had been filled, then people would feel a sense of visual calm; they’d resonate, much like I would if only I could move one stem over.
The cakes aren’t like sculptures or paintings kept in a studio. They exist in real-time and are eaten in real-time and are then gone forever. So, you don’t get the chance to move the stem or the sugar flower leaf over a smidge. It is gone. All that’s left is the finished image of the cake. People often don’t know why they resonate with some of the cakes more than others, but it’s because the ones they love best are visually balanced.
I started The Mischief Maker officially in 2013, (but have been making cakes since 2008, at least) as a way to channel my degree in art into an edible medium. Anyone that knows me probably finds the name of my business most appropriate. I’m lovingly known in the phones of many simply as “Mischief.” I may be both absurdist and impractical all at once, but you can’t ever say I’m boring.
However, you may ask, “Why mischief for cakes?” I can tell you. Mischief is fun and full of energy. Every party should be full of mischief; it should be playful, energetic, and entertaining. If you are non-mischief makers, you are susceptible to the commonplace, the boring, and the ordinary. The Mischief Maker can put a little spark of mischief and excitement in your party with the best mischief-maker of all: sugar.
Sugar. A long time symbol of fun and indulgence, it is the sheer meaning of energy. Nothing compares to the glimmer in your eyes when you see sugar. You know you aren’t supposed to have it, but somehow that makes you want it even more. Sugar is mischief itself. There is a conversation and buzz in the air about the sugar flowers at an event right up until the cake is cut and then tasted. To me, the cakes feed both the mind with their beauty and the soul with their taste. After, they leave you feeling as pleased and intoxicated as a bee who’s smothered in pollen.
I have no staff. I work with my mother on each sugar flower. My dad and husband inevitably end up pitching in, too, on everything from deliveries, sugar figure sculpting, and coloring sugar greenery. I have many emails from students that would love to intern, some as far as Paris, New York, and California. I tell them what a mess they’d find themselves in dealing with us, such a misfit crew! Although, at this time, we work best in solitude, just sorting out these concepts, experimenting, and bringing the cakes to life.
We do a lot of work and experimenting in Eastern Kentucky at my Mamaw’s house. It sits high atop a hill with yet another garden, where we can be away from all distractions, where we can think. Otherwise, I do all of the baking and designing myself from my home in Lexington, looking out at the garden from my kitchen windows, while occasionally running out to take photographs of the odd hummingbird or the latest thing in bloom.
We complete one to two cakes a month, preferably one to keep the detail high. The moment my ability to do exceptionally highly detailed work goes out the window, I will no longer have an interest in making cakes. When a cake is finished, I can stare at the finished image forever, feeling a sense of calmness that every flower and bud is turned just so. My favorite finished cakes always feature a degree of wildness. Flowers that simply have a mischievous mind all their own.
My garden is my biggest interest, followed by anything color and design related. I don’t tend to have hobbies or passions that can’t all flow together, build, and influence the cake designs. For me, my garden works in counterpoint to the cakes. I view the garden as a living version of one of the sugar flower cakes and simply love experimenting and working on it. I can pull a specimen from the garden to see it in different stages of life or simply watch how a flower blows in the breeze. These things all help me make the sugar flowers more real, more convincing. Like a gardener starts new every spring, with each new cake, it’s a fresh opportunity to start over, always trying to make it just right “this time.”