Making edible art

 30 July 2012

Connie Viney is an artist who creates outlandish and larger-than-life sculptures and installations made from cake and icing. She spoke about how she started her creative career.

Sculptures in fruit cake and fondant icing:
Sculptures in fruit cake and fondant icing: "Big Yellow Thing with Three Balls" and "Big Multicoloured Thing with Three Balls"

While I've enjoyed cooking and baking cakes for as long as I can remember, my main passion growing up was always drawing and painting.

From a young age, I enjoyed nothing more than visiting art galleries, which usually inspired me to get stuck into my own art projects at home. I was always fascinated by colour and loved everything weird and wonderful, be it on TV, in a storybook or even a science museum.

At school, when it came to making our subject choices for university, the decision was easy for me. Art college was the only place where I could imagine myself studying.

Getting inspired for edible art

"I could spend weeks building an art work to go on display, only for it to be eaten by gallery visitors within hours."

During my art college degree, I had the opportunity to explore the world of painting in greater depth.

My art works were always colourful and the subject matter was usually something quite wacky. My paintings also became a lot more three-dimensional.

I worked a lot with wood and cardboard and soon my art was taking up entire walls. However, while I loved creating a spectacle, the size of the paintings also came to be a bit of a burden. The bigger my paintings got, the harder it was to find a place to store them after the exhibition.

This was when the idea of 'edible art' first came to mind. I was intrigued by the notion that I could spend weeks building an art work to go on display in an exhibition, only for it to be eaten by gallery visitors within the space of a couple of hours.

Developing skills and techniques for sculpture

I organised my first cake exhibition in my third year of art college. I had been travelling around Turkey the summer before and wanted to build a series of cakes inspired by the spectacular architecture I'd seen.

I spent a couple of months before the show experimenting with different types of icing, cake decorating tools, as well as working to find the ingredients to make the perfect sponge cake. I also went to cake decorating classes and cake conventions in order to get a bit of inspiration from other baking enthusiasts.

My exhibition turned out to be a wonderful experience. There was huge turnout (there was free cake after all!) and people's responses were really positive. This encouraged me to work even bigger and design cakes for people who might not necessarily visit art galleries.

Over the next two years, I made a couple's fantasy wedding cake, an eight feet tall 'walk in' birthday cake and was even commissioned by the Edinburgh City Council to make a giant Christmas-themed cake for the city's biggest department store.

Turning a showpiece exhibition into a career

The press attention I received for my cake sculptures was overwhelming. However, nothing could have prepared me for the response I got from my art college degree showpiece – a room made entirely out of icing.

"Images of the sugar room were in newspapers around the world. I began to consider developing a career out of it."

Everywhere you turned, there was something either weird and wonderful or dark and disturbing carved out of icing. I wanted it to be visually mesmerising.

While many people were fascinated by this sugar room, for some, the sickly sweet smell of icing and tightly-packed design of the room was a little too much, and I watched them make a hasty retreat. Either way, I created a reaction, which was exactly what I wanted.

Images of the sugar room were featured in newspapers around the world and busloads of school kids came to the degree show just to see my piece. This response showed me that there may be a market for outlandish cake design and I began to consider the possibility of developing a career out of it.

Starting a career after graduation

It was a daunting prospect at first. I'd never imagined myself as a businesswoman!

After graduating, (with an MA in Fine Art and Art History from Edinburgh University) I decided to move to London and, almost straight away, booked a gallery space in one of the city's main contemporary art districts, Vyner Street.

This presented a new and exciting challenge and gave me something solid to work towards. The only issue, of course, was money. I got a job as a full-time waitress, which just about covered my rent. Obviously, this wasn’t in the field I'd spent the last six years studying in, but I actually quite enjoyed my job and got a buzz from working in such a high pressure environment.

Getting corporate sponsorship

But the world of cake making is a pricey business, and the money I made from waitressing wasn’t enough to cover the cake creations I had in mind.

"I decided to email the Silver Spoon sugar company – before I knew it, a truck full of icing had arrived at my door!"

I managed to get some funding from the Northern Ireland Arts Council, but this was pretty minimal. As everyone knows, times are hard, and I've seen how funding for the arts has been drastically cut over the last couple of years.

I then decided to email the Silver Spoon sugar company and asked if they would like to sponsor my exhibition. I wasn't even expecting a response but they wrote back immediately and were really positive about the prospect of working with me.

We had a meeting in London, and I told them how much icing I would need for my exhibition – which was a lot! Before I knew it, a truck full of icing had arrived at my door and I was unloading it into my hallway.

I know some artists are a bit sceptical about being sponsored by big businesses, as they can make certain demands which aren't in line with how the artists want their work to be presented. The best thing to do is to keep your eyes open, and see a sponsorship deal as just one of the steps in the journey towards getting to where you want to be.

For me, Silver Spoon have been really supportive and honest about what they would like to gain from working with me, which is essentially publicity for their brand. They understand that it’s an art exhibition first and foremost, and that I want my artistic intentions to remain central to the overall project. It just so happens that their brand of icing is the one I chose to make my sugar sculptures with.

I’ve found that sponsorship to be a saving grace, as it has enabled me to work on a scale I’d previously only fantasised about. The additional press exposure my exhibition could receive is something I really value, especially at this early stage in my business. Also, depending on how this exhibition goes, there may be a possibility with working with them in the future.

Building on initial success

At the moment, things are pretty full-on, in terms of getting ready for my exhibition. I have to think about advertising, as well as transporting my sugar sculptures from my flat to the gallery (I can't afford to hire out a studio just yet).

After my exhibition, I have been commissioned to make a giant birthday cake for a company celebrating its 100th birthday in December. They have also been great to work with and think that my outlandish cake creations tie in perfectly with the kind of event they want to put on.

Things seem to be going from strength to strength, where my business is concerned. My aim for the future is to carry on having exhibitions in art galleries alongside working on commissions for large events. Both areas undoubtedly have their attractions and drawbacks, especially where money is concerned.

Either way, the prospect of earning a living from making people’s fantasy cakes is something that really excites me.

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