Frankly, it's a milestone for me. It's a 'pinch me' moment," said Kerry Vincent.
For 20 years, cake designers have traveled to Tulsa for the Oklahoma Sugar Art Show, creating incredibly ornate and colorful creations.
The wedding cake competition -- which this year will have a top prize totaling about $20,000 -- draws talent from around the country and even internationally while also influencing bridal style in the months ahead. The cakes will be on display Sept. 28 and 29 in the lower level of the River Spirit Expo building, part of the Tulsa State Fair at Expo Square.
Vincent is a self-taught sugar artist whose talents have propelled her to fame, including regular television appearances on The Food Network.
"There's so many mediums of sugar, too," said Vincent, rattling off just some of the sugar artist's palette: buttercream, royal icing, gum paste, modeling chocolate.
Some hand tools allow sugar artists to etch designs into the edible material, a technique that resembles drawing as much as anything. Other times, like with flower creations, it's about carefully cutting and folding flaps of material.
The ingredients can also be extruded or even molded, though Vincent frowns upon unfresh designs. The show has come to recognize technology and the creation of printed edible images, but "you must make the edible image in a modified way, so you're doing something extraordinary with it," Vincent said.
And with travel so much a component for many entrants, while the artwork itself must be edible, the tiered "cake" may be replaced with some basic Styrofoam shapes.
San Jose, Calif.-based sugar artist Vivian Pham took the top prize last year with an impressive array of shapes and color. She estimated it took 350 to 400 hours to come up with her winning creation, not including a year of weekly brainstorming sessions to come up with design ideas.
But the event has a humble beginning. Vincent recalled winning her first sugar art contest in Oklahoma City just a few years before starting the Tulsa competition.
She and friend Maxine Boyington simply grew tired of travelling to larger cities to put their design talents on display. Held at first at the Promenade Mall in 1993, a lack of space led Vincent to seek out the fair as a venue for the show in the mid 1990s.
Expo Square President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Andrus described the event as a highlight of the fair.
"The biggest change is undoubtedly the number of people that come to see this incredible event," Andrus said. "It started out good, and it's gotten to just standing room only."
Andrus has been with the fair for more than three decades, with this year marking his 34th year of service.
"We create a city for 11 days of the year that we promote ourself," Andrus said, pointing out the diversity of events from the agriculture contests to the entertainment highlights.
This year, featured entertainers will include rising country-pop star Adley Stump on Sept. 26, as well as big-name rockers Sevendust on Sept. 28, with a diverse set of musicians headlining the fair's second week, including Casting Crowns on Sept. 30.
It's a setting that Vincent says has well complemented the growing sugar art show.
"The fair had this massive space set out for us.
Each year, we'd grab a bit more turf," laughed Vincent. This year, she'll have over 700 entries, as well as 72 contestants vying for the top wedding cake prize.
The wedding cake challenge is really where the event became known internationally, Vincent explained. Part of that was prize money cobbled together from sponsors in the event's early years. A top prize of $1,000 at the time, "in cake territory, all those years ago, was absolutely unheard of," Vincent said.
But the popularity of the event soon caught on, as well as Vincent's personal appeal, which has influenced a younger generation of sugar artists.
Pham, 24, recalled seeing video of the Oklahoma event on The Food Network. She's also self-taught, and said she first became involved in baking and sugar art while in high school. Without much money, cakes became her go-to gift for friends and family. After all, "I don't think there's anyone that's received a cake that wasn't happy," she reasoned.
"I don't have like an art background, but I'm really good with drawing and artsy stuff, and I love going to museums. And those are the types of things that give me inspiration," Pham said.
Every wedding cake contest as a theme -- arrived at by Vincent, based on her own brainstorming session -- and this year it's ballet. But entrants must run their idea by Vincent, who will reject some themes in favor of presenting a diversity of ideas.
"If I see more than one person with swans floating around the cake, I will bring my shotgun and blow them all off," said Vincent, a native Australian. Her bio on The Food Network website references that country's residents as being "known for a no-nonsense approach in speaking their minds," adding that "Kerry is no exception."
But while she's a stickler for rules and high standards, the cake decorating community is actually far from cutthroat, she said.
"It's like a great big family," Vincent said.
And the show is definitely a labor of love.
"It's all absolutely volunteers. There's not a single person who's paid, and it's all done for the joy, I guess," Vincent said.
Pham said she actually wasn't planning on entering this year's competition until she received a call from Vincent urging her to do so. Pham, a culinary school graduate, has yet to make a full-time career out of her cake skills.
"It's not fully my full-time thing. I think it's mostly because I want to learn more," she said. Sometime in the next several years, her goal is to work for a luxury hotel, with a long-term goal of opening her own ultra-high end bake shop.
Her creation this year will feature "forest green, beige and gold, a lot of gold leafing," Pham said.
It's stressful and far from mistake-free work.
"There are a lot of people looking towards my creation, and I have to live up to their expectations. I don't want to show up with a half-assed cake," Pham said.
But there's just something about creating a great-looking design.
"It's really rewarding when you see the outcome of your cake and just seeing your cakes on magazines or online," Pham said. She recalled her first visit to Oklahoma and being in awe of those creations, and described how people have had similar reactions to her cakes. "It makes you feel like it's all worth it," Pham said.
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