Now reading The Sugar Artist

The Sugar Artist

A visit with Margaret Braun.

The artist’s residence will run through January 26, 2015. 

Margaret Braun is a sugar artist and cake designer. Since June, she has been the Tuesday artist-in-residence at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, where she is in the process of hand-sculpting a series of two thousand drinking cups made of sugar, while visitors wander in and out of the studio space, asking her questions about her work and sometimes accepting her invitation to handle the cups or eat broken pieces.

“As people come in and ask questions, I get to test my ideas over and over again, and it’s great because I learn as I’m talking,” Braun says. “Not everyone gets to do that. I get to hear myself say smart things, and sometimes I say to myself, Never say that again, and sometimes I’ll curse or I’ll say something like ‘I could be working in scissors and blood.’” I joined Braun for a morning in her studio this past October to ask her a few questions of my own.

Margaret Braun: There are about seven hundred cups in this room here, and I have about another four hundred in my studio downtown. They’re all different, because I don’t measure them as I’m rolling them out. Each time I see a cup I have a different compositional challenge.

Why are you making 2,000?

I chose the number 2,000 because I feel like it’s kind of that sweet spot where quality and quantity can meet. The difference between 1,000 and 2,000 is more significant than the difference between 2,000 and 3,000, in my mind. So you’re still thinking, Wow, that’s a big number, but you’re not thinking, Wow, it’s all about numbers. It’s really about the cups and about how different they are from each other.

When I get to 2,000, I’ll go through them, and I’ll catalog them, and I’ll photograph them, and they will all be numbered.

I grew up in Levittown [New York], which was this community where all the houses looked the same. It was my experience that, because of that, my individuality kind of exploded. I see these cups as a community, in that they’re all made out of the same stuff, but they really are different.

I’m the only one doing the production, so I get to know each one, because there are so many different treatments that each cup gets—rolling it out, letting it dry, putting a bottom on it and letting that dry, sanding it down, decorating it, putting on a base or a handle. I get to know them by the time they’re done.

When they break, I fix them. If it’s a fairly clean break, like this one, I fix them with gold leaf, so there’s a little story—Here’s the poor cup that broke—but sometimes they just shatter and I just let it go. I break one every day. The whole time I’ve been here, not one visitor has broken the cups. I’m the only one who breaks them. So there are actually pieces you can eat. [Hands a broken shard to a visitor, who eats it.]

So, you know, you can eat them, but would you eat them? You can drink out of them, they are functional, negotiably functional, but would you drink out of them?

Cups2They’re made of sugar, but there must be something else?

It’s a sugar paste called pastillage, which is basically a cooked sugar before it caramelizes, then you mix in a lot of powdered sugar. You mix it and mix it and knead it and knead it, and then I add a catalyst for sugar, called gum tragacanth. It’s used in pastilles and in aspirin; it’s what makes soft sugar paste get hard. So that’s why I have to work really fast.

I’m using a very quick mold because [the sugar paste] dries so quickly. To keep the series, the sizes infinite, I use the sugar cups as molds. I’m using sugar molds as sugar molds, because the more sizes I have—and I’m talking about really small differences in composition—it will really make a difference. These two [holds up two cups] were made in the same mold, but they demand two very different treatments. One might work better with ovals [as decoration] and one might work better with circles. Each time a cup comes to me, I’m thinking, Okay, what does this need? I’m seeing it as a two-dimensional composition first, and then I think of it sculpturally.

I’m low-tech. I use so few materials. I use this rolling pin, a toy rolling pin, a paring knife, powdered sugar, a wooden pipe. I’m not a gadget queen. I keep it really simple, and I like to make everything by hand.

Are you going to paint them when you’re done?

No. I have worked a lot with color over the years, and I love color. There’s lot of color in my book. Very early on, I was that person who said, “No more white wedding cakes! Color, color, color!” But as the years go by you change. And in fact the cups are translucent; there’s a lot of color in all of these different whites, and there’s shadow because all the motifs are different.

I’m decorating directly onto the cups, working with a pastry bag. It’s just like decorating a cake. These are very classical motifs: a fleur-de-lis, an arabesque. I know them so well, and I’ve been working with them and refining them and tweaking them for twenty-five years.

If you added tea to this [cup], would it sweeten the tea, or would it just melt?

This one’s had cocoa and tea and coffee in it and it never leaked. It kind of gets a little bit cloudy and gooey, but you can drink anything out of it. So you can use them. But would you use them? They will melt eventually, but not as soon as you’d think. Some of them might leak, but functionality is not my main objective here. I’m more interested in a question like, “Are they real?” Because they’re not real, but they are. They are real cups. Is it an important object? Because it’s made out of sugar and it’s essentially worthless, even though sugar used to be a luxury trade-route product, a commodity.

[Visiting art student interjects] People have died for sugar.

That’s right, it’s a fraught medium, but for me, I’m coming from a purely vocational perspective. I’m a person who worked in a kitchen and that’s what I was given. It’s what I do; it’s what I know; it’s how I learned how to be an artist. And sugar paid my rent.

I’m used to making things that people don’t take seriously, don’t see as real objects. So the power that I ascribe to sugar is very personal—it’s about me, my identity as an artist. For me, working with sugar is a good way to reconcile a steady hand with a busy mind.

As a kid, I was a very distracted student, but to get through my classes, I would write on desks. I would fill notebooks with numbers and letters—the same, different, the same, different—just to pass time.

So what’s happening to these 2,000 cups after you’re done?

It’s for an installation. I’m about 1,100 into the series and now looking for a home for them. I want them displayed on wood, because they’re cups, and cups go on tables. Cups are ritual objects and we all have a relationship to them. You can have your really tacky coffee mug that doesn’t even look good, but just feels good in your hand. Or, you can drink the blood of Christ, s’il vous plaît [laughs].

Have you actually seen them decay yet?

No, not really. They’ll exceed a human lifetime. As perishable as they are, they’re also tougher than you think. One of the brightest things that one of my visitors has said, trying to describe what it’s like to hold one, was that it’s like an egg, which itself is this incredible thing: you can’t drop it and you can’t squeeze it, but when you’re holding it, it’s solid. It’s got some structural integrity. I love that.

You don’t have an assistant or an apprentice?

I have a baker [for when I do cakes], and a dishwasher, someone to clean up. I have always had a hard time imaging someone else doing the decorative work. I like doing it all myself.

The only people who help me here [at Museum of Arts and Design] are children and they don’t really help. I give them something to roll out, and I write their name in sugar on their arm, with a piping bag, and say, “OK, now, it’s sugar, and there are a few things you can do. One, you can eat it now, and it will be soft and sweet and yummy and it won’t be there anymore, or if you wait until it dries, it will be crunchy.”

How many of them wait?

Like half and half. You know there’s that [delayed gratification] study about the marshmallows. I would eat it right away. I can’t buy a box of cookies and eat two. I will eat the entire box. So I am not that kid who will wait. But a lot of them do.

The kids who visit are great. They pay attention, they listen, they’re interested, they’re into it and they want to help. Some kids are shy, but the ones that are not, they’ll say, when a new person walks in the room, “She’s making things out of sugar. They’re all the same but they’re all different.” They’ll repeat what I say but in their own way. I love it. They get it.