Q: You’ve done some huge cheese sculptures. Which one is your favorite?
A: My current favorite is from the Indiana State Fair this past August. It was SO cute. It was 2,200 pounds of cheese.
It’s a dairy cow sitting on her throne. I used one white 640-pound block and two yellow 640-pound blocks and had to cut and fashion them to make the 7-foot by 6-foot sculpture.
It was very complicated, very beautiful, and very fun to do. It stretched me to the ‘nth degree of ability and stamina.
Q: How long have you been doing this?
A: I’ve been carving cheese for 17 years, full-time for eight years.
Q: I didn’t realize there was such a demand for people to carve cheese.
A: It is still unique. In retail and food service we are always looking for ways to make cheese more visible. It’s a “hook” to attract the consumer. I carve and sample (hook) and talk (educate) to get them more excited about cheese.
About 85% of my time is spent in supermarkets carving and promoting cheese for the Wisconsin dairy industry. “We” call it “theatre at retail” or “shoppertainment.” I‘m hired as entertainment!
I also carve at trade shows, food and wine events, and at a couple of state fairs.
Q: Do you do cheese sculptures for weddings?
A: All the time! That’s fun. Bride and groom on a tractor, bride and groom on a motorcycle, in their corvette, with their dog, as leprechauns, as college mascots, waterskiing, on a cake… the church…!
Q: Did you have one for your wedding?
A: We did! I ca-r-r-r-r-ved a skull and crossbones—the Jolly Roger, because we had a pirate wedding.
Q: Can I ask why you had a pirate wedding?
A: My husband is a retired Navy commander. We wanted to be married on an old frigate and sail ‘round San Diego Bay; shoot off the cannons, serve grog, the works! Instead we said, “I do” in Wisconsin. My bro and sis built a gigantic three-masted ship using her hay wagon—“The MV Cheese Lady” and served brats, cheese ‘n grog in gran-n-n-n-n-d style.
Q: Did you set out to be a cheese sculptor?
A: Cheese really found me. I drew a lot as a kid. My whole family is very artsy, talented and clever. We were always encouraged to try, our art was never criticized so we never failed. You should have seen our cookie decorating-–true works of art! I knew in high school that I had to do something with art, and I ended up going to technical school for commercial art.
Later, I became the art director for the American Dairy Association of Wisconsin. We had “foodies” I would hire to carve cheese for big events. Of course I had to dig in and help, but I never thought about carving cheese myself.
When I left that job in 1996, one of my cohorts called and asked me to carve for them. They sent me a 40 pound block, the tools, and the rest is history.
Q: In order to do this, you must have to travel a lot.
A: Last year, when I added up all the days, I was “home” for four months. But I’m in a condo, and my husband, Bill, is retired, so he travels with me. And he works for me. His nametag actually reads “Cheese Boy!”
Q: How long does it take you to make a cheese sculpture?
A: It can take two hours or ten days. My longest project took ten days (150 hours) at the Indiana State Fair; the New York State Fair was also ten days.
Q: How long will a sculpture last?
A: Small, medium, or large—wrap it with paper towel, cover loosely with plastic, and get it into refrigeration. The cheese rejuvenates itself. Great big carvings can last seven to eight weeks.
I carved a 300-pound gorilla before Halloween and it lasted through the New Year! In October we put a witch hat on it. In November, a pilgrim hat, then a Santa hat, then a New Year’s hat. We pitched it after that because we were sick of feeding it all those bananas!
In about a month I’ll be carving at Ripley’s Believe it Or Not! Times Square. I’ll be carving Mount Rushmore, Ripley’s-style! There will be five heads—Washington, a lizard man, Sword swallower, Ripley himself, Lincoln and perhaps a couple of shrunken heads for good juju!
Q: So you’ll be sculpting in front of people, right? Does that make you nervous?
A: Yes, I’ll be on display—one of the featured oddities! I don’t get nervous. I got over that, years ago, real fast.
Q: Have you ever sculpted the wrong thing?
A: It’s funny. I do the word “Wisconsin” all the time. Wisconsin. Wisconsin. Wisconsin. And it’s not beyond me to misspell Wisconsin.
A: Where do you get cheese that’s big enough for these projects?
A: I like to use the sizes commonly made today—a forty-pound block, 22-pound wheels, or larger. I often carve 500 and 1000-pound “mammoth” cheddar cylinders. That’s how it’s been made for centuries.
Cheese makers commonly make 640-pound blocks that are 28 by 28 by 24. That’s the industrial size for manufacturing cheddar, Havarti, Monterey jack… made in the large cheese plants twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
You know, it takes ten pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese. The average dairy cow produces about seventy pounds a day. Demand for milk for cheese is robust.
Q: Do you draw your designs or do you just sculpt?
A: As a rule, sketch and plan ahead… Cheese sculpting is subtractive; you can NOT put it back! It’s also polite for your audience to see what you’re carving. They will still ask, “What are you making??”
Sometimes I spend hours or days sketching. The large sculptures can be very elaborate. You are working in 3D! I’ll draw on a quarter-inch grid and then blow it up into two actual-sized patterns one to cut, one to post near the cheese.
Q: Are there other cheese sculptors out there?
A: I can count them on one hand: a couple ladies and a man; a few butter sculptors that occasionally carve cheese, and a few chefs but no one else has a full-time crazy career like me!
Q: How long will you be doing this?
A: Till I die in the harness.
It’s not work to me. It’s an art project. I don’t think, “Ugh, another one.” Instead, it’s, “How can I fit this one in? Where can I get the cheese? How can I make it great?!”
Q: You’re amazing.
A: I guess I am famous in the cheese world. The sky is my limit.