I became aware of Karen Portaleo’s work when I stumbled upon THE Octopus cake online. I was instantly amazed at the genius behind it. The sculpting itself would have taken forever and Karen nailed it. Every curve and tentacle was so well executed, you could stare at it for hours, and wonder how the heck did she do it out of cake.
|Words fail me whenever I see this cake. It’s unbelievable|
January 2014, Karen Portaleo was teaching 2 classes at the Mother of Cakes Academy, Pennsylvania. I could not miss it. I signed up for the Indian Dancer class, and that soon sold out. Despite the polar vortex hitting the East Coast quite hard, we all got there in time! Although, I heard Karen was stuck in Georgia and her flight was delayed 4 times! She eventually got to Pennsylvania at 4pm, when her first class was scheduled at 9 am!
I took the bus to Pennsylvania from Port Authority NYC the day before class was due to start and it took just under 2 hours. It was quite an easy journey as the scenery was lovely, albeit being slightly hungover. Why do I always do this to myself before travelling! Hahah!
Everything was covered in snow and it was refreshing to see the countryside, so serene and calm. I could have kept going…
|My suite. It was so comfortable. I looked forward to it every night. It was only missing a fireplace.|
|Outside the Homewood Suites by Hilton. There was nothing around us!|
The next morning, class started at 10 a.m. The lovely Sarah Myers from High Five Cakes kindly picked me up, and took me to the academy. I had seen so many photos of the MoC school online and was thrilled to finally be there! Tanveer, our host made us all feel very welcome, and she really is like a Mum of the Academy! (Thanks Tanveer x)
It was a full house. Students had travelled from all over America – LA, Seattle, Alabama, Ohio, Florida, Maine, NY, NJ, and of course, myself, from Malaysia!! I had come a loooong way, so move over – Im’ma gonna take lots of photos and ask a million questions!! 😉
|The Panda, Karen’s other class project|
We kicked off the class constructing the armature for the bust. Armature and I, are have this unrequited love. We met at the Galloping Gus course with Kaysie Lackey Sydney, 2013. I had never worked with it, and we dove into a very advanced structure. Right into the deep end, and I had to swim. Once again, everyone in this class knew what they were doing with the armature.
|Karen explaining how to do prepare the armature|
For me, it was revisiting the horror. You gotta break out the drill, the spanners, the nails and screws and hammer. Connect the flange to the board with the 1/4 inch screws, then insert the 2 1/2″ nipple to the 3″ elbow, tighten…*say what? As if I’m already not lost, using cm’s would help, too!*
So we get busy, carving out the foamcore, attaching the flange and screwing on the pipes etc. This structure was way simpler than the Galloping Gus cake, and soon, my internal structure was ready.
Then, they broke out the Rice Krispie Treats. Hah! Something else I knew NOTHING about. I’m used to good ol’ styrofoam. I was pleasantly surprised though. They used ready made sheets of RKT and I found it very easy to sculpt and carve with. It was less mess than styro and much easier to work with. I definitely need to explore this medium a little bit further on my cakes in KL.
The target of the class was to create a face sculpture, so using RKT was the medium to do so. We could spend as long as we wanted on the face, and eventually take our project back with us, and it’ll be fine for months on end. Using cake, would have shortened its shelf life, for sure.
I for one, was very keen to learn face sculpting. We used modelling chocolate, another medium I was not that familiar with. But I will need to experiment here in Malaysia with it, to see if it’ll work in hot environments as well. Karen proceeded to demonstrate the face sculpting. And of course, with ease, she created a face from a lump of modelling chocolate!
Her techniques were incredible and with the use of 2 tools and her hands, it was sheer poetry, just watching her work.
Karen is a wonderful teacher and was always calm and ready to answer anything you threw at her. She explained everything to us very clearly, but what I would have liked was perhaps a step-by-step demo. More like a demo of the eyes first, then a break for us, to go and do our eyes. Then she could move onto the nose. So this way, she could also keep watch on what each of us were doing with our face. It was a lot to take in, all in one hit! My head was overloaded with mental notes of what she was doing to the face!
Once she was done with her face, then it was our turn. The first step was very hard. Once I had the chocolate on the face structure, to make that initial first imprint was crucial. I started with the eye indentation and then moved onto the nose. Eventually, a couple of hours later, I had the face done. I wasn’t thoroughly happy with it, but at least now, going back at all my photos, I know where I went wrong.
Sculpting a face is not a walk in the park, and getting all the proportions right are absolutely vital! Mine had a lopsided brow and her eyes weren’t balanced 🙁 I always have a problem getting the left eye to match the right!
We ended the day around 6.30 pm and I was exhausted. I just wanted my bed. We were due to get back to class at 8.30 a.m the next day, so I needed my rest. We had a full day of painting to look forward to!
Bright and early the next day, it was time get a move on. Karen gave us some time to add on the top of her saree and jewelery to get things going. So I decided to make a peacock green colour (my favourite at the moment), and added a hand moulded choker to her neck. I didn’t want to spend too much time on the embellishments, because I can do that at home. I wanted to concentrate on her face.
Painting the details onto the face was next and I couldn’t wait! I love painting! As soon as Karen’s hands touch a paintbrush, the magic begins. The first eye she painted on, just brought the sculpture to life. Look at it. It’s so real, it’s almost eerie. Then the other went on and whenever I walked by, I could almost feel her eyes staring right at me. Everyone felt that. She was so real. So real, that one could not help, but be drawn to those enchanting eyes.
I just went for it and didn’t even hesitate. I tried my best to replicate Karen’s eye, but like all hand made products, it will never be the same as what you’ve been taught.
I was quite happy with the painting on mine but yet, the flaws on her face still bugged me! Her eyebrows were too close together, the brow bone on the right side, is lopsided, and her eyes are not the same size….damn it.
The class ambled along and soon our Indian Dancers starting to take shape. We rolled and we embossed, we moulded and we draped, and bit by bit, some had hair, some had the veil on, and some even started painting the gold jewellery on.
It was another late night and we ended the day around 6.30pm again. Tanveer had updated us regularly on the weather report. Heavy snowfall was due the following day, all day and we were warned that those leaving that night, might experience delays. So we were advised to come in as early as possible to avoid getting stuck at our hotels.
Right. So it was an 8 a.m. start on our last day.
And this is what I woke up to…
|It’s around 7.15 a.m|
|I couldn’t resist a picture in the snow. It was so soft and lovely 🙂|
|Hotel grounds all covered in snow|
|At the MoC carpark. Snowed under. No one was there yet at 8 a.m. There were 3 cars with other students all waiting to get in.|
In America, everything still kinda runs when there’s heavy snowfall. Everyone just gets out their shovel and starts shovelling away. Snowplows work the streets fast and clear the roads after the snowfall. It’s quite remarkable actually. So here at MoC, it’s business as usual. Everyone gets to class more or less on time, and we get busy.
It’s the final day and we can spend all day adding the finishing touches and Karen also had a surprise for us. She brought in lots of new toys for us cake decorators. It’s Sugarveil! Sugarveil is a form of confectionery icing used to create intricate lace work and patterns. It’s a revolutionary product that creates delicate lace work that is pliable and flexible. I’ve seen more and more decorators use this product on their cakes, so I was keen to learn how to use it!
|Applying the sugarveil onto the mats|
I really hope I will be able to use this product in Malaysia. It’s wonderful! It can test your patience, but if you have it on a good day, it really has that “WOW” factor!
All day long, the snow kept falling and there was a certain calmness in the air at the MoC that day. Everyone was having fun and working on their cakes, and having the best time. I loved it.
So when we had all finished our work, it was time to group together and take photos!
|Karen and all the students’ work!|
|Karen and Sarah|
|My sculpture, against the snowy background.|
|Karen and I|
Not only is Karen a talented cake artist, she’s also the sweetest and nicest person! I loved learning from her and was so inspired. I couldn’t help but give her a hug, after she had shared a video time lapse of her Gypsy Warthog cake with us. It was awe-inspiring to say the very least. One day, I hope to be as great as she is.
Thank you Karen Portaleo for sharing your talent with me and for being the mind-blowing artist that you are!
And to Tanveer, for being such a gracious host. Your staff worked very hard to keep us all happy and I shall be back soon!
Thanks for reading and do stay tuned for more updates.