Cupcake interview with artist Zilly Rosen

Tuesday night while election results were being tallied, we posted the image of Zilly Rosen's 1,240-cupcake artwork of Barack Obama, which has since been making the Internet rounds. Now we've got an interview with the Buffalo-based artist about her cupcake-making process, setting the installation up at Obama's Buffalo headquarters, and her plans for her bakery, Zillycakes.

photo by Shasti O'Leary Soudant

Name: Zilly Rosen
Age: 41
Location: 841 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14222
Occupation: Cake Designer and Owner of Zillycakes

How do your cupcakes generally fit in with your artistry?

I used to get a lot of flack in art school for making art that wasn’t angst filled. I liked to work with decorative surfaces and bright colors, and I always wanted to make art that I would actually enjoy living with every day. Though I studied and then taught fabric design, printmaking, metalsmithing, glass blowing, and ceramics, I always baked on the side. All of my baking training has been on-the-job at the 3 different gourmet bakeries I worked for while I was in high school, undergrad, and grad school.

Finally, about two years ago, I stopped thinking of my baking and my art as separate. This shift was partly due to the cake artists working in New York, partly due to the support of my manager Kevin Gardner at Dolci bakery who encouraged me to take over the wedding cakes, and also largely due to the support of my husband who knows first hand the change that comes over me when I bake.

I began to think of cake, frosting, fondant, and gum paste as art mediums just like paint, clay, metal, and glass. There are many, many similarities in how you can create with them. The wonderful difference is that cake is more easily accessible to people both as an art and as a commodity. It is nearly always associated with a celebration. It is both ephemeral and enduring; the cake is all about the “now,” but the remaining visual image and emotional effect exist and even grow in people’s memory.

Zilly Rosen Obama cupcake photos
photo by Zilly Rosen

How did the Barack Obama cupcake project come about? Why 1,240 cupcakes?

I knew I wanted to do something to be part of this moment in history. I wanted to send up my creative energy to the “ether” in the days preceding the election. I’m a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, and they always have a bake sale on Election Day for the people voting at their polels. I first thought about making this installation for their bake sale, but then realized I couldn’t have an image of Barack within 100 feet of the polling place! Then I began to think of these cupcakes as an homage not just to Obama but to the hundreds of volunteers here in Buffalo who worked on his campaign. I have a voice disorder, so I couldn’t make phone calls, but I know the people who did, both here and all around the country, really made a difference. Where better to serve the cupcakes than at the headquarters in celebration of them? As I’ve always said, it’s not a party if there’s not a cake!

The number of cupcakes that I used was actually determined by the image more than anything. Any fewer and I would have lost a lot of detail and definition in Obama’s eyes and mouth. In this project, the cupcakes function like pixels in a computer image. It’s really not an original idea to compose a face or an image from pixels. Many contemporary artists that I admire have been using the grid as a tool for image-making for decades. Creating the grid and the image from cupcakes was my original twist, and I think that creating the installation for this moment in history made it really resonate.

Why did you pick that particular photo of Obama?

I was looking for a photo that showed the optimism that dances in his eyes. I found one in Time Magazine, and then I found another almost identical image already used for an art piece on the Obama website. Artist Shepard Fairey created a poster called “Vote and wrote the following statement about it:

"I wanted to make an art piece of Barack Obama because I thought an iconic portrait of him could symbolize and amplify the importance of his mission. I believe Obama will guide this country to a future where everyone can thrive and I should support him vigorously for the sake of my two young daughters…I love the new VOTE image because I think that Barack Obama is the rare candidate who is simultaneously dignified, intellectual, and presidential, without losing his good natured humanity. I want someone as my president that I would like as my neighbor. I think our relationships with our neighbors around the globe will improve under Barack Obama.”

I couldn’t agree with him more! When I use images, I usually play with them in Photoshop first, to begin dividing them into different values. Shepard’s image was one step ahead, so I used that as my starting point.

How long did it take you to do the installation, and where did you set it up? Did you have help baking the cupcakes?

I baked all the cupcakes myself; my 6-year-old daughter licked the bowl a few times and my 3-year-old son helped me put the liners in the pan. The project took about 6 eight hour days from start to finish. My assistant Mo McKenna helped me for about 10 hours on Monday to cover all the cupcakes with Italian meringue buttercream and handmade fondant. We didn’t have the right size cutter for the circles, so I rigged something out of a tea ball and a wire. I transported all the cupcakes in aluminum trays to my friend Shasti O’Leary Soudant’s photo studio on Election Day (after I voted), which is right down the block from me. Mo’s boyfriend Alex Davies had made me a great folding surface to set the cupcakes up on; it was 5’ x 6’ in size, and it was hinged in two places to fold so it would fit in my car! It took me 6 hours to set the cupcakes up the first time in Shasti’s studio. Talk about a brain frying process! I had separations printed out for each color cupcake, but there are some things I would do differently to make it go more quickly next time! Shasti photographed the process, which was amazing.

What was the most challenging part of it?

The most challenging part was definitely getting all the right colors into the right spot! It took about 3 times as long as I thought it was going to. As I said above, there are things I would improve upon in my process next time! The other challenging part was making everything in just a few days so that it would still be fresh and edible. Cake art tends to be a “down to the last minute” process because of that factor.

What did it feel like when you finally finished it?

Mo and I popped a mini bottle of champagne when we finished covering the cakes with fondant...we never thought that day would end! And I have to say, the day I set the cakes up, though it was tricky work, was one of the best days of my life. It was in the 60’s outside—a glorious fall day—and I had the studio doors open. It was Election Day, Barack was leading in all the poles, and I listened to AM talk radio as I placed the cupcakes in their spots. It was glorious. Seeing it all come together at the end was like magic.

Zilly Rosen Obama cupcake photos
photo by Zilly Rosen

On Wednesday you took it apart and then reinstalled it at Obama's Buffalo headquarters. What was that like? What do they plan to do with the cupcakes?

Once the image had been created, I put it into pans in segments in correct (and labeled) order. It came apart quickly, and it went back together so quickly at the headquarters. I set it up on tables at the headquarters, and at first, no one could see the image. You have to get a certain distance away from it for it to come together. Interestingly, when you looked at it through a camera it was visible instantly. I had a wonderful time talking with the volunteers and hearing their stories. I told them the cupcakes were to celebrate them, but no one would touch them until the news had come and taken pictures. Even then, I had to put the cupcakes back into the trays myself to get them to take them home with them. Many of the volunteers were teachers, and they were taking cupcakes back to their classes. It was a great feeling to honor the volunteers that way.

Is this something you plan to do again, whether with Obama or another public figure or prominent image?

Hmmm, how about for Obama’s inauguration? I could make it 10 times the size…
Yes, I would definitely do this again, if someone commissioned me to do it. I could see making one for our neighborhood soldier’s homecoming party when he is done with his tour in Iraq.

You're opening up Zillycakes in Buffalo soon. Can you tell us more about when you expect to open and what you'll be offering?

I’m already open for design consultations and tastings for cakes in 09. I work mostly on wedding cakes, but I also do sculpted cakes and other celebration cakes and cupcakes. I have an active website at, and my bakery, Dolci, is allowing me to use their space for tastings until my space is officially open. I have submitted designs to the city, so now I am waiting for building permits before I can begin work on my space. I would guess that my retail section will be open by late March or early April. We’ll have a fresh cupcake bar and a very fancy line of baked gifts. I will also be offering classes in different aspects of cake design and decoration.

What, if anything, is the connection between cupcakes and politics?

In this case, the metaphor is pretty obvious: you can’t see the image unless you have many, many individual cupcakes that all come together in one place. It took planning, organization, inspiration, and perspiration. All of these things characterized Barack’s unbelievable campaign. And the image isn’t vibrant unless it contains a wide range of values! Finally, when I was trying to decide about flavors, I went with vanilla on vanilla for the background, to comment on the playing field Barack has been competing on. The cupcakes that comprise his image? All chocolate with vanilla icing, of course!

Zilly Rosen Obama cupcake photos
photo by Zilly Rosen

And now for some personal questions...

How often do you eat cupcakes?

I eat cake a few times a week; cupcakes are my first choice if I have them! I also belong to Weight Watchers and Curves!

What's the best thing about eating cupcakes?

When you make a cake, you cut off the top to level it, which is the best part. My friend Aryn grew up calling it “cake leather.” Cupcakes each have their tasty tops in tact!

What's your favorite type of cupcake?

Anything with Italian meringue buttercream!

How do cupcakes compare/contrast to other baked goods for you?

Cupcakes are more playful, less fussy, more enticing and immediate! Forks get in the way. Plates add more dishes to the pile. Give me a cupcake and a napkin and then another cupcake, please.

Is there any innovation you'd like to see made to the cupcake that would improve it for you?

Any change and it wouldn’t be a cupcake any more! I’ll be serving a “side car” of icing at my cupcake bar once we open, much like the popular icing shot. I’ll also serve “naked cakes,” in case people like their cupcakes au naturale.

Do you bake your own cupcakes? Or (even better) have someone who bakes them for you?

Yes, I do. Sometimes Dolci does the baking so that I can focus on the decoration.

What's your first cupcake-related memory?

My mom made me an Ernie from Sesame Street cake for my 3rd birthday, but I can’t remember my first cupcake memory. I do remember that I used to go to Tags bakery in Evanston, Illinois every day after school in 6th grade with my best friend Leigh Gethmann. We would buy cupcakes and take them to the soda counter at Thompson’s Drug Store where we would wash them down with a cherry coke. Can you say sugar buzz?

What's the most fun you've ever had with a cupcake?

That would definitely have to be this project, bringing 1200+ cupcakes together to make Obama’s face!

Do you have anything else to add?

Thanks for your time and interest in my project!

photo by Shasti O'Leary Soudant


cupcakeculture said…
Wow, this is so cool!!
Anonymous said…
Fantastic interview which made me hungry and proud to be an American cupcake eater!
The Favorite said…
Zilly is so amazingly talented.
Courtney Imbert said…
Proud to be from Buffalo! Go Zillycakes!
Unknown said…
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! OK, I knew about the Obama portrait thing, and I was so psyched when I found out it was someone from my town, but she's opening a CUPCAKE BAR??? HERE???!!!! Ohmigod, I think I just blew a fuse.
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH! That's so great. What an awesome project and what an awesome discovery-- I love cupcakes, and one of my roller derby teammates is a complete cupcake fanatic. We were trying to think of less-alcoholic team bonding activities for this upcoming season... Cupcake bar! Yay!
This totally made my day. Twice, actually, because seeing the cupcake portrait the day after Election Day also made my day.
Thank you twice, Zilly!! :)
Amanda Ch said…
Even tough it takes a lot of cupcake to do this, It is actually a good concept of decorating cupcakes, it takes out the traditional images of cupcake looking cute and sweet and turn it into an artsy, smart concept. And the awesome part is that you can share the cupcake with a lot of people