After a lifetime of studying, teaching and creating art, in 2008 Zilly Rosen finally gave up on making a name for herself in the art world.
Yet on Valentine's Day 2009, Rosen found herself installing one of her works in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Her medium: Cupcakes.
"I finally turned my back on the life of a studio artist to open a bakery, and now is when I'm in this major museum," Rosen recalled. "I brought my piece up in the freight elevator and wheeled it past all these modern artists that I studied in school."
That's when it hit: She'd made it. "I'm here," she recalls. "It was an unbelievable moment."
With a team of eight, Rosen created portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama from 5,600 cupcakes, each topped with a disc of colored fondant anchored by buttercream frosting, as part of the museum's Presidents Day celebration. Onlookers followed the work's progress at the museum and across the globe as Rosen narrated a live Internet stream in her low rasp, the result of a bandit's bullet.
The approach was classic pointillism, but for Rosen, it tasted more of surrealism.
As it turns out, she had to abandon her career in order to find it.
Rosen has seized that moment, thriving in the sweet spot where her art and business overlap. Starting with her Zillycakes shop at 1008 Elmwood Ave., Rosen's custom cakes, cupcake art and willingness to promise cakes she never has made before have all helped her become one of Buffalo's best known culinary artists.
Surfing the wave of interest generated by cable television shows like "Ace of Cakes" and "Cake Boss," Zillycakes has tackled sculpted cakes from a space shuttle with openable cargo doors to a 2-foot-tall Ugg boot.
And cable has come calling for her. Rosen will appear tonight, with top assistant Shannon Pilarski, in their second episode of "Food Network Challenge." They are competing against three other teams to make cakes inspired by ghost stories, in pursuit of a $10,000 prize.
> Whatever you want
Zillycakes isn't the most established, or the biggest, bakery in town. In fact, Rosen shies away from using the term "bakery" at all, preferring "cake studio and cupcake bar."
That's because you can't walk in and buy a cake or a loaf of bread. If there is a brightly colored cake in the Zillycakes display case, it is spoken for. All the shop's cake work is by custom order. Walk-in customers are offered cupcakes, in regular flavors like red velvet, or monthly specials like Caramel Apple and Chocolate Chai.
She makes no more than five cakes for each weekend, said Rosen.
"We would make more money if I just said, 'Pick from cake numbers 1 through 10,' because we'd get really fast at making number 10, and we could make it in half the time of making something new," she said.
Then again, money isn't Rosen's primary motivator, she said. She isn't losing money, but hasn't paid herself a salary yet.
"I am getting incredible benefits," Rosen said. "I am an artist and I am working artistically every week. The cakes are cool, but the jobs are cooler."
At 44, Rosen said, she finally has her dream job: cake artist.
"I realized when I started making the wedding cakes that this was what I wanted to grow up and be," said Rosen. "This requires my whole skill set, good speaker, body language reader, designer. And I get to make stuff, which as [an art] teacher I didn't."
Her cupcake work has led to a book of Halloween-themed treats, "Zombie Cupcakes," and installations like the portrait of Buddy "Cake Boss" Vilastro that Rosen and her team assembled earlier this month at Canada's Baking and Sweets Show in Toronto. (For that, Rosen figured how to adhere four colored discs to a single cupcake, creating a higher-resolution portrait.)
> Family matters
At her Parkside home, Rosen raises two children, Eliza, 9, and William, 6, with her husband, Lee Rosen, a Praxair mechanical engineer, with help from Laura, their German au pair.
"There would be no Zillycakes without Lee Rosen," she said. He not only helped fund the business, he's the parent who cooks dinner now, Rosen said.
"This business is a huge drain on family resources, financially, emotionally, all that. The first couple years I worked 80-hour weeks. It was brutal," Rosen said. With the help of counseling, the couple worked out a more sustainable system. "We stayed married, which was fortunate."
Through it all, Rosen said, she also has managed chronic depression, which she has battled since she was 13. She has a therapist and takes Lexapro, an antidepressant.
One sign depression is coming is that the creative voice goes away, she said. "That's how I know that I'm not well, that my body chemistry has gone off. A negative, nagging voice comes into play -- 'Why does anybody do this? What's the point?' So it's the opposite of the 'Oh my God, this is such a great idea, let's make this happen.' "
"If I say how much I benefit from paying attention to it and treating it, then maybe somebody's more likely to do that, and not feel the stigma attached to it," Rosen said. "I'm not embarrassed by it, or apologetic for it. It's rough on my husband, and my kids. But they know."
And they've adjusted well. On a recent morning, Eliza and William were home from school. Eliza commanded the stove, standing on a box, and made Swedish pancakes for a visitor and others. Later, Rosen helped William in a chess match against his sister, using a chess set the children built for Mother's Day, from Lego blocks.
> Finding direction
The former Elizabeth Ann Frazier was born in 1967, in Evanston, Ill., to a minister and a school teacher.
"Those are two oral-based, performance-based professions," Rosen noted. "I'm very comfortable expressing myself publicly, and at least in public I can control myself and my message."
Her first bakery job came at age 15, in Evanston, when she got a job icing Christmas cookies. She would do seasonal cookie work at the bakery for years, but most of her efforts went toward making and teaching art.
She studied metalsmithing, pottery and printmaking as an undergraduate in St. Louis, and later would pursue a master's degree at Washington University. At 29, she was in the master's program, and dating Lee Rosen.
That same year, she traveled to Guatemala with her younger sister, Carolyn. On a road outside Quetzaltenango, a criminal gang tried to stop their hired car. Their driver ran the roadblock but a bandit's bullet tore through Rosen's neck.
Her younger sister took over, comforting her during the 40-minute drive to the nearest hospital. Later, operations restored some of the art teacher's voice.
The incident hardly comes up these days, except when people ask why she speaks with a low rasp. But it showed Rosen that despite her depression, she was an optimist.
"I didn't think 'Oh God, oh no, why did this happen to me, poor me.' I thought, 'How cool is this?' " Rosen said.
"That I could be shot and the next day smile at the person coming in the door to take care of me. And be optimistic. And not be afraid. This terrible thing happened, but it didn't touch my core."
Three years later, in 2000, she married Rosen. She cut her teaching to part time the next year when she gave birth to Eliza.
Lee Rosen got an excellent job in Buffalo, so they moved here in 2002 and bought a big, old Parkside home, with plans to use the third floor as her art studio. Rosen, a stay-at-home mom then, gave birth to William the next year.
In 2006, the first week William was able to go into day care, Rosen walked into Dolci Bakery on Elmwood Avenue and asked for a job. Kevin Gardner, her boss at Dolci, remembers Rosen introducing herself with a box of homemade cookies.
"These things were meticulous," said Gardner, who went on to open Five Points Bakery with his wife, Melissa. "I said, 'This is ridiculous. You do these at home? I could sell these cookies right now.' "
For Valentine's Day, he gave her some big cookie hearts to decorate. She took so long on each one, around half an hour, that he had to price the intricate, multicolored heart designs at $15. "I still sold eight," Gardner said.
But as a regular baker, Rosen was a flop. "They tried me in the production line, and I couldn't work fast enough," said Rosen.
Instead, Gardner made Rosen head of the cake department. "I can only sell a cookie for so much, but I can sell a wedding cake for $1,000," said Gardner. "People are willing to pay for something phenomenal. And that's what she had, that phenoenal quality that people look for when you're celebrating a once-in-a-lifetime event (hopefully)."
Rosen had never made a wedding cake before. She took four standard classes from Wilton, the cake supply people, and took on her first commission. As it turned out, it wasn't the last time Rosen would agree to tackle the unknown:
Two rocket scientists were getting married. They had detailed specs for the proposed cake -- a space shuttle with astronauts and opening cargo doors -- and a $1,200 budget.
"I was like, 'Huh, I was an art teacher, I can sculpt,' " Rosen said. "So I said yes."
After that, she began to look forward to the next oddball order, for stimulation.
"It was the specificity of the orders that were coming in, people seeing something on the Food Network and realizing the world was their oyster when it came to cakes, as long as there was somebody who would say, 'Sure, I'll try it,' " Rosen said.
> On her own
Rosen decided to open her own shop in 2008, but first she wanted to make a cupcake Barack Obama portrait, as a lark. She delivered the 1,200-cupcake piece to the Buffalo Obama campaign headquarters the day after the election.
It went from The Buffalo News' front page to national cable television within hours. Rosen's father called after seeing it in California. It was one of Time magazine's favorite photos of the year. Rosen's little manic episode had gotten her national attention.
"The pop artists loved it, because it's kitsch. The cupcake subculture, they're making their dozen cupcakes and it kind of blew the lid off that," said Rosen. "Then the Obama people, the Obama love ..."
Emboldened, Rosen fired off emails, looking to do a larger version for the inauguration. The Smithsonian responded, pointing to Presidents Day instead. So Rosen and her people baked a trailer full of cupcakes, and she led her team, her husband and their children to Washington, D.C.
Since then, Rosen has shaped her crew into a cake-building team.
"When I first opened I thought we were selling cake. I realized after the first year what we were really providing was a custom service ... a custom 'experience.' If you get too big, that custom experience is no longer possible to maintain."
So Zillycakes does up to five custom cakes a weekend, starting at $200. "People tend to order from us for the bigger milestones, weddings and 50th birthdays," said Rosen. "My favorite thing is when people say, 'This is going to sound weird.' "
She rubs her hands together and emits a spooky chuckle.
When the Larkin Group wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its landmark building with a cake replica that had to serve 2,000 tenants in 10 flavors, they called Rosen first.
Years earlier, Rosen had made a cake replica of her Unitarian Universalist church, to feed 300. The Larkin cake would be nearly 10 times as large.
"Once we thought of the cake, then we said let's call Zilly and see if she can do it," said Donna Kostrzewski, Larkin Development Group vice president, who had been impressed with the corporate gifts Zillycakes had made for tenants the prior Christmas.
"She said, 'I can do it,' " Kostrzewski remembered. "I said, 'I want it huge, Zilly, huge.' And it was."
Six feet long, 18 inches wide, Rosen's calculations showed it weighing more than 450 pounds. There is no cake -- at least none anyone would want to eat -- that can survive having that amount of weight bearing down on it. So Rosen sketched out an internal support system on Photoshop. She figured out the precise dimensions and her husband advised her on a saw to cut wood bracing blocks.
Rosen and Pilarski pulled an all-nighter constructing the building: The 2,200 windows, individually cut and decorated, became a problem when the lines Rosen piped onto them popped off. She had to redo each one. It cost two extra hours.
But when time ran out, the only shortfall was gum paste sections that couldn't be attached to the exterior, Rosen said.
The customers didn't mind. "Up close? Oh my gosh. It was so realistic. The windows. It was flawless," Kostrzewski said. "The First Niagara sign was right down to its last detail. The cellphone tower on top [a wire model dipped in red chocolate] was amazing."
Besides the look, it was delicious, she said, with each floor's tenants choosing their own kind of cake. "She achieved the different flavors."
"Who would have thought a cake could make people that happy?"
More people than you might think. Though the cake shows on TV have driven the market to her door, they've also created the impression that custom cakes are done in 30 minutes, Rosen said.
"We'll get people calling on Wednesday morning that they saw that sculpted turkey in the window, and they'd like to pick one up the next day for Thanksgiving.