Amy Williamson Miller’s garage studio looks like a toolbox exploded inside a cake shop.
An 8-foot-long, hand-sewn nylon icing bag hangs from the ceiling while aluminum icing tips the size of bocce balls are strewn across a counter. Chunky, hand-cast flowers fight for space against bulky pieces of icing that have such a sugary appeal that children have been known to run their fingers across for a lick or two.
It’s a place where her confectionery conceptualizations become reality — Willy Wonka would be proud. Through color, texture and forms native to confections, Miller, a feisty, freckle-faced redhead, has found her artistic voice by fabricating larger-than-life, cake-like sculptures. Sometimes, her recipes require power tools. Her “Extruder 2000,” a 50-pound machine that needs its own pulley system, just happens to be one of her favorite topics.
The Extruder 2000 allows her to decorate her cakes — an altered mix of pourable urethane rubber and plastic — by daubing, squirting and extruding four feet of “icing.” The icing is a blend of several compounds mixed with fumed silica and emulsion hardeners.
“This is my Extruder 2000,” Miller says as she runs her fingers across the surface. “It’s a honkin’ tool that I made specifically so I can make these confectionery, dreamlike creations come to life. I’m always dabbling, casting and mold-making, and I’m usually in a suit trying not to get these sticky, toxic materials on my skin. I’m like a psychotic Betty Crocker.”
This Betty Crocker, one of the newest artists to join s/ART/q, certainly grew up with a sugar buzz.
For most of her childhood, sweets surrounded her. Miller’s father would return home from his job at Nabisco with Nutter Butter peanut-shaped sandwich cookies and crunchy Nilla Wafers. When he accepted a job with Little Debbie Snacks, the chocolate goodness was too delicious for the family to resist. Because his work truck lacked refrigeration, any time the sweets melted, they were on the house.
“I remember him bringing home Swiss Rolls, Fudge Rounds and Double Twins,” Miller says. “All I ever knew were boxes of cakes. Any time there was a new development or cake, he’d bring it home for a taste test in a white unmarked box.”
Although Miller worked in a European-style bakery after high school and had always loved drawing and revamping furniture, it wasn’t until she enrolled at Pratt Fine Arts Center, in Brooklyn, N.Y., that she decided to explore the confectionery aspect of her work.
“In 2003, I wanted to get serious, figure out who I was and discover my voice,” Miller says. “With confectionery-based pieces, I needed something to get the oversized icing to extrude out of to get those sensuous, curvy, delicious icing textures. My thesis in graduate school was building this thing, and I spent a year in the machine shop to learn how to use a mill and lathe and designed this big tube made out of PVC. The interior part has this ACME threaded rod down the center and two steel-backer blades. I get way excited about things a girl should not get excited about.”
Wanting to direct the icing tool with her hands and not have to control the power herself, she purchased a foot pedal, which she uses like a sewing machine pedal to control the speed, and wired it to the drill. Because the Extruder weighs 50-plus pounds, she created a pulley system that hooks it up to the roof of the garage. A jug that once held cat litter is filled with water to balance out the weight of the Extruder and make it easier to maneuver and rotate 360 degrees. Miller crafted an assortment of tips made from aluminum that attach to the end of the machine and make anything from a basket-weave texture to leaves, rose petals and whatever other funky textures and shapes she can imagine.
“I can get five feet of continuous flow in one full cannon, which is about four gallons of my secret recipe,” Miller says. “I can’t tell you what’s in the icing — it’s top secret. It’s the farthest thing from edible, which is tricky. When I put these pieces on display, kids run to this sweet-looking object thinking they can eat it.”
Every time Miller’s family gathers during the holidays, her brother and father, who both work for Little Debbie, engage in conversation that Miller has always referred to as “cake talk.”
“They think it’s funny that the work I make looks so sweet,” Miller says. “I guess I kind of developed my own ‘cake talk’ in response to that. I don’t know if my dad put it together until just recently. He came to my art opening for the first time and people were asking me about my work. I was able to say, ‘Well, my dad, here, got me hooked on sweets.’”
Amy Williamson Miller on Victoria’s Secret:
“Before I moved to Sarasota, I made the wings for the Victoria’s Secret fashion shows. I worked at Izquierdo Studio, a big costume shop in New York City, for four years. I was the artist for three seasons. Some of the wings were, like, 10 feet tall. Heidi (Klum) would come out with the most grandiose wings — she always had a little extra. Working there, the theatricality of it all, it was a symbiotic retreat.”
• “I have favorite moments in snack-cake history. Hostess at one point developed super heroes that represented their products.”
• “You have to type ‘Amy Williamson Miller’ when Googling me. Otherwise, you’ll get Amy Miller the porn star.”
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: s/ART/q third annual Print Party
WHEN: 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, at The Hub, 1413 Blvd. of the Arts
COST: $5 per print
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