Interview #16: Karen Portaleo
I studied art at the Ringling School of Art and Design, jewellery at Georgia State University, jewellery, enamelling, copper smithing, glass and porcelain at Penland School, and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art from the Atlanta College of Art.
I’ve had a colourful career path so far ranging from teaching Ballroom dance at 16 to designing jewellery for a large design house, to mural and sign painting. In 1995 I started my own business as a prop and set designer for the advertising industry. My client list included Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Target, Maybelline, Dove and Hershey’s.
In 2000 when my daughter Juno was born, I began to work with clay, and was represented by Ferrin Gallery where I was able to show my work among some of my art world idols. My clay work is in the books ‘500 teapots’ and ‘500 figures’.
In 2005 my friend Stacey Eames opened Highland Bakery in Atlanta. Upon my first visit I noticed she had no decorative items in her bakery cases, so I asked if maybe I could make a few cookies. That’s how my career in Cake Decorating began.
I have no culinary training and work only as a decorator. I did spend a good part of my childhood in bakeries, as my Grandfather was a pastry chef before he retired.
Currently I am the lead cake decorator at Highland Bakery in Atlanta, and have the pleasure of working with some of the most talented artists in the industry who just happen to be on my team. My client list has included Ne-Yo, Keishia Cole, Demi Moore, Steve Harvey, T Pain, Lil Wayne and the artist that provided the soundtrack of my pre-teen life, Sir Elton John (!)
Karen was recently in Australia filming video tutorials for Cake Masters and I was lucky enough to be invited by Guy to come and meet her for an interview. To say she was fabulous is an understatement and I for one will be lining up to purchase her amazing Cake Masters tutorials as soon as they launch in a couple of weeks time!
Karen what has been your greatest challenge in Cake Decorating?
There are different aspects are challenging…delivering cakes…remembering things like the door is the size that it is….no matter what kind of cake I want to make, it has to fit through the door!! But I think the biggest challenge is getting a beautiful product out in a timely manner.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of Cake Decorating?
The payoff is always the feedback from the client, bringing in a cake and all of a sudden everybody’s phones come out and it’s a mini paparazzi moment. It’s a lot of fun because when somebody invests this kind of money into a cake…into a FOOD item ultimately…then they’ve got big hopes for the turn out, they’ve got a big story they want to tell, so to be trusted with that is a big deal and to come through and meet or exceed their expectations and create this centerpiece. Because then it becomes theirs, and now they get to be the ones that present this thing that they made possible and I love that .And I love to cut the cake up, take it apart, serve it to everybody…all of it.
Do you have a favourite cake?
I just did a 2 ½ ft. tall frog in Louis the 14th costuming with sugarveil lace and all that. That’s currently on my favourites list but I did a giant Octopus cake, that’s my favourite animal, I have a tattoo of one that I’ve had for about a thousand years because I’m a thousand years old (laughing) So that was very important to me that I got to do that but also because for reasons unknown, that cake went viral and still does, it still makes the rounds! That cake, probably more than any other, launched me into the realm of where I get to do a lot of what I get to do now. So it was not only a great cake creatively, it was a great cake career wise…that’s my lucky cake!
Cake Masters is an amazing venture, are you allowed to tell us what we will see in your video tutorials?
I’m doing a class on sculpting faces out of modeling chocolate. I reference a skull because it’s important for proper structure. So it’s a pretty intensive class. I’m also doing a quick tutorial on hands and I’m doing Airbrush Basics 1 and 2. The first one starts with the very basic taking your airbrush apart, because I find so many people that have one, don’t know how to take it apart, they don’t know how it works and they get intimidated by the fact they have this machine and it’s very mysterious. So if you know how to take it apart and clean it properly and keep it functional. You’ll also see that even though there are lots of little parts, it’s a pretty simple machine and maybe that will help them get past that intimidation.
There are a bunch of practices, different things you can do to get used to your airbrush and better their dexterity. So there’s 1 and 2 and the one we’re filming today is for Warner Bros and it’s is The Joker…classic, old school, D.C. Comics image of The Joker. It’s going to be a lot of fun; the lesson will be transferring an image to fondant and then a lot of hand painting.
Karen how do you juggle family, friends, work and traveling?
I don’t know! I was sitting here this morning looking over the water and trying to remember everything and coming up with systems for keeping track of things but part of what makes it possible is that I’m SO lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I’m SO lucky to be traveling, and so lucky to be making a living off of sculpting with chocolate and cake…and talking about cake, and being part of people’s celebrations, and traveling and talking to people who all have the same passion. So with that as a basis for what I’m doing it’s a joyous list of tasks to keep track of…and my daughter is fabulous and amazing, she makes it easy.
How do you findthe time to let your creativity flow?
I’m lucky that I have a lot balance, I do a lot of charity work with cakes so usually I‘ll have a few events a year where we’re donating fairly large cakes and usually these organisations are so happy to have a cake that they let me do whatever I want. So that’s when I say “well I know this is funding AIDS research but I really want to do a Sumo wrestler cake” And they always say “Okay!” So I squeeze that in between all the obligation kind of cakes so I do get a lot of creativity. One thing I do to keep myself moving creatively is I like to do pen and ink work. It’s a fairly portable medium so usually everywhere I go, I have pencils and a nice pad of paper so in quiet times I can sit and wander off in my head and do little pen and ink works so that feeds my creativity too.
Your fans believe you can do ANYTHING….are youever faced with a design that you’re not sure you can pull off?
Oh yeah! But I do feel like I’ve gotten to the point at the bakery where I can turn down certain cakes…I would say no building or vehicles. I can’t stand them! I would do buildings if it could be a castle that I make up, and it could be any kind of castle I want, but if it has to be the Capital Building of a certain city or a stadium…oh to me that’s torture! Vehicles too…some people love to reproduce things very specifically but for me that’s just like doing a long math problem, it’s all measurements, there’s NO creativity whatsoever. So to me that’s very restrictive, I get anxiety! So no buildings and no vehicles, and I’ve finally got to the point where I can say NO!!
Do you have any rituals or habitswhile you’re working on cakes?
Well I like to have music but I have to get out of my seat every so often and circle and when I get to work in the morning I say I can’t ‘land’ yet. It’s a very big bakery where I work and I have to make circles…I can’t come in and just focus, I’m kind of very immature and A.D.D with that. I have to circle the bakery a few times and get some coffee, check in with people, come back and wander, come back and wander, then after I’ve circled a few times I can come back and sit down and get to work. I’m sure it’s annoying for my team but they never tell me if it is…
Karen…do you procrastinate?
Oh yes, I’m a big procrastinator. There is nothing more inspirational as the last minute and sometimes I HAVE to get there, sometimes I think ‘I don’t know what I want to do…what it has to be there in 5 hours?’ Then everything becomes very clear but up until that moment it’s not…I’m a big procrastinator.
Do you have everything planned and mapped out in advance or do you wing it?
I wing it! I COMPLETELY wing it! I usually have the crudest sketch you can imagine; I described it once as though I’ve cut my hair over a piece over paper! It’s just little marks here and there and they only make sense to me. It’s like this strange scratchy language…it’s just the basics and I leap into it and it evolves as I’m going. I prefer a challenge and driving myself crazy with things.
If you couldn’t make cakes anymore, which of your many creative pursuits would you focus on instead?
I’d probably go back to clay because I REALLY enjoy working 3 dimensionally.
Karen you’ve achieved so much, is there anything left on your Cake Bucket list?
I would like to do a book on whatever kind of cakes I want. I would like to do more T.V. because that’s a lot of fun, then the people we would love to make a cake for…Tim Burton! THAT might be on my bucket list!
Which decorating tool could you not cope without?
My Dresden leaf and flower tool, I really do believe that between just my hands and that tool, that really is all I need…except for the airbrush, I like the airbrush. But I think that one tool really is the basis of my whole career.
That’s fabulous to hear Karen because I have SO much stuff!!
Well I’m drawn to shiny things and I’m like “Ooh what does THAT do??” And I learned quickly you know thinking ‘I need that and that and that’ but then I use that one tool! It was the same when I did clay, I had this one tool…I guess I’m a one tool person. I was invited toRon Ben Israel’s shop a couple of weeks ago in New York and the collection of molds and beautiful things he has and the way he keeps track of them and it was all immaculate…it made me think ‘I don’t have enough STUFF!!’ Look how much stuff he has and look what he does with it’ so I kind of re-thought my simple ways.
Do you bake…do you LIKE to bake?
No….I don’t like baking! I feel bad because my Grandfather was a pastry chef and I grew up in bakeries around excellent fresh baked goods. Again it’s math and science. It’s not like any other kind of cooking, in the kitchen I just go through the cabinets and you put something together and you throw things in…baking is NOT that! Anything where there’s rules I’m immediately in trouble. I don’t like baking.
You’re a cake idol to so many; do you have a cake idol?
Oh yes! Mike McCarey of Mike’s Amazing Cakes and Michelle Wibowo of Michelle Sugar Art.
And finally….do you dream in cake at night?
Yes I do…it’s funny, a couple of weeks ago I had a grooms cake from Dungeons and Dragons. A 20 sided dice, that’s all they wanted and I was so intimidated about making this thing 3 dimensionally AND they only wanted half of it but I couldn’t figure out how to do it and in my dream I figured out exactly how to do it. I woke up and thought that’s it! And that was the morning I had to make the cake so I went in and did it exactly the way I had dreamt it and it came out perfect! But until I had that dream I was still baffled about how to do it.
Thank you Raewyn for doing the interview and Karen for your time. Your cakes are amazing!Some of Karen’s Cakes
Karen’s Flickr Page – http://www.flickr.com/photos/9438541@N04/
Karen’s Facebook Page – https://www.facebook.com/pages/Karen-Portaleo-Cake-Artist/130289367026596
Cake Masters – http://cakemasters.com/