With short blasts, the airbrush gun sprayed bursts of red paint on the blue and white surface of the bag. Moments later, Janet Brown arranged potato chips near the open bag so the chips appeared to be spilling out.
But the chips were not real potato chips. They were specially shaped dried fondant pieces and were part of her cake, which looked like a bag of chips.
“When I work with cakes, I work with the real thing,” Brown said. She had put a real potato chip bag beside her chocolate cake to use as a model for her cake sculpting.
Every time she makes a bag of chips cake, someone tries to pick up a chip thinking it’s real, she said.
In some ways, the cake artist has sculpted her life as much as she’s sculpted her award-winning cakes: with determination. Brown has met the challenges in her life head on, including a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“It’s all attitude,” Brown said, standing in the kitchen of her not-yet-open shop, The Cake Studio, on North Mulberry Street.
Brown, the daughter of James E. Wood and the late Jane Wood of Hodgenville, learned her art about 10 years ago while in Belgium where her husband, Matt, was stationed. As a graphic artist who air-brushed T-shirts, she needed a creative outlet when she discovered she was allergic to the airbrush paint in Belgium.
Then she saw an air-brushed cake in a magazine. Cake air-brushing uses food coloring.
“I am self-taught,” Brown said. “When I started this there were no TV shows and ... very few people sculpted, and I was one of the few.”
Among other things, the Elizabethtown resident makes cakes shaped like motorcycles, horses, boom boxes, guitars and even cooked Thanksgiving turkeys. The cakes do not simply have such images painted on them; they are shaped like the objects they represent.
“I love it when somebody goes, ‘There’s no way that’s cake,’“ Brown said. “... That makes my day.”
Not only did Brown train herself in the art of designing, sculpting and decorating cakes, she has won cake competitions. At the end of March she competed in, and won, the National Capital Area Cake Show-Live Challenge in Washington, D.C.
The competition consisted of cake artists putting together and decorating a themed cake in three hours. Brown competed against cake artists who competed on Food Network and TLC cake challenges.
The theme was “haunted castle.”
“When he announced my name as the winner, I couldn’t get up,” Brown said.
Brown had been a last minute replacement for a competitor who had to drop out.
“I would characterize her as very talented,” Jimmy Wood said of his sister. “She has a gift that very few people have.”
Brown’s family – Matt and daughters, Randi, 22, and Lexi, 13 – are supportive of her cake art. Randi remembered having to come up with themes for her cakes, including an alien and the Sphinx, so her mother could have a challenge to work on.
She faced a greater challenge last year when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
Brown had her last chemotherapy session Dec. 22. Her last positron emission tomography (PET) scan came back clear.
While she is happy about the results Brown also expressed awareness that there’s “definitely a chance” it will come back. But she said she never would have said that she couldn’t get through it.
Brown’s latest challenge has been her attempts at opening a cake shop.
Brown said she realized that if she was going to open a shop she had better do it now.
She even created a Web site for her shop: www.janetscakes.com in anticipation of opening.
Located in downtown Elizabethtown, the former site of Backstage Café, The Cake Studio began to take shape. But city ordinance restrictions involving a grease trap made the shop’s opening uncertain.
While Brown expressed some disappointment, she also understood the city council was just doing otsjob and accepted the probability her shop would never open.
Then a last-minute decision gave it the green light.
Brown said she was shocked.
“Now I guess I am going to have to get to work,” she said.