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Display of portrait in D.C. is icing on baker's cake

Zilly Rosen thought her 15 minutes of fame had come and gone.

In December, the 41-year-old Buffalo baker was featured in Time magazine's Person of the Year issue, which featured a portrait of the new president that she made entirely of cupcakes.

But on Saturday, the halls of the Smithsonian Institution's American Art Museum were filled with cake-loving fans eager to view Rosen's one-day exhibit, "Presidential Cupcakes," her 11-by-17-foot mural of Presidents Lincoln and Obama.

The temporary culinary installation was made from more than 5,900 cupcakes -- all baked and frosted by Rosen and her crew, and transported from Buffalo in a U-Haul.

"I have always been a baker," says Rosen, who is also an artist. "I'm more comfortable with a piping bag in my hand than a paintbrush."

Rosen began baking at 15 and has had numerous baking jobs, including working at Dolci on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, which helped sponsor her for the presidential project by donating baking space. Now, Rosen is only a few months from opening her own shop, Zillycakes, at 841 Elmwood Ave. Her tagline: Feed your Imagination.

The exhibit was part of the museum's Presidential Fun Day, and was assembled in the Luce Foundation Center on Friday.

The Smithsonian was happy to have her. "I think the timeliness of it is just ideal," said Jo Ann Sims, chief of external affairs for the American Art Museum. "The bicentennial of Lincoln's birthday, combined with the election of President Obama, has sort of poised [us] for a special moment in American history, this weekend."

Sims said Rosen submitted a proposal to the museum, "and I was just immediately entranced and intrigued by the whole notion," she said. "So we put our heads together and said 'How can we make this work?' "

And work it did.

The museum exhibited the construction of the portrait on its Web site Friday afternoon and reported about 16,000 views. It also received approximately 500 visitors within the first two hours after the unveiling Saturday afternoon.

Rosen's team of about nine friends and employees constructed the portrait on the floor of the museum, using carefully organized and labeled trays. The design came from a picture she assembled as a grid on Adobe Photoshop. Every pixel on her computer screen eventually became a cupcake.

She admits that using grids in art was not her idea. But "doing it with cupcakes was original," she says, "that was my, sort of, little twist that catapulted this to a whole different realm."

Rosen's future cake shop will rely on the same principle of taking something people know and adding a "little twist."

"We're not a bakery," she said. "We're really a custom cake studio." As Rosen uses flour, eggs and milk as her medium for art, she wants to include her customers in the creation of their cake. "It's an artistic process, and they're part of that process," she said.

In addition to the baking operation, Rosen plans to teach baking classes, rent her space for parties and even have an open studio night, when people can try their hands at cake baking under her guidance.

The fleeting nature of Zilly Rosen's edible art became evident around 5:30 p.m., when spectators who had been waiting for hours were offered the chance to chew on a pixel of a president.

Laurel Horn, 22, of Washington, was one of the many who came to the museum to feed both her imagination and her stomach with Rosen's cupcake art.

"It's incredible to have a culinary mosaic," she said.

e-mail: citydesk@buffnews.com

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