October 2008 Issue
West Chester artist Sarah Kaufmann finds her sculpting niche.
Sarah Kaufmann brings a whole new perspective to the phrase “you are what you eat.”
“I'm a cheesehead,” she says with a laugh.
Known to her fans as “The Cheese Lady,” the West Chester artist has carved a name for herself in the culinary-arts field with her unique (and delicious) cheese sculptures. She attributes her success to an artistic upbringing. “I drew all my life, from a little kid on,” Kaufmann says. “My whole family was really arty. I remember we made animals out of mud and snow.”
After studying commercial advertising in Madison, the Wisconsin native landed a job as art director for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, where she developed a variety of cheese and dairy promotions. She quickly became fascinated by the idea of carving unique works of art out of the dairy product while assisting chefs with displays at culinary shows and conventions.
In 1996, Kaufmann packed her bags and moved to southwest Ohio, where she took a position in advertising and public relations for Jungle Jim’s International Market. Throughout the ensuing decade, she spent every spare moment honing her craft.
“Right off the bat I carved this big 640-pound Green Bay Packer for the National Football Conference,” she recalls. The reaction was more than Kaufmann ever dreamed it would be. “Photos [of it] were everywhere. I was doing television, newspaper and radio interviews for this cheese [sculpture].”
Sargento Foods was so impressed, it requested Kaufmann’s carving talents for the 1996 Super Bowl: She created busts of sports announcers Terry Bradshaw, Ronnie Lott, Howie Long and James Brown out of cheddar.
“Each head fits nicely in a 40-pound block,” Kaufmann acknowledges with a smile.
Other assignments followed, including four 300-pound replicas of Mount Rushmore for America’s Dairy Farmers. That job led to an unusual request from “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.”
“[Publicists for the organization] called Rosie and asked, ‘Who do you want in your Mount Rushmore with you?’ Kaufmann recalls. “And she said, ‘Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise!’”
So Kaufmann carved an edible quartet of George Washington, Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Cruise and Abraham Lincoln.
“That was the Olympics of carving,” she says. “It was January so it was cold outside, and I used my garage as a refrigerator to keep all of these cheese heads. I was like, ‘Come on! Keep your arms up, keep going, keep going!’ I probably did that in maybe 10 days or less, plus worked my full-time job.”
Kaufmann admits working late nights wasn’t always so bad. “I spent many an evening with famous celebrities,” she says with a laugh. “I spent the night with Tom Cruise — Tom Cruise’s head.”
And she was pleasantly surprised to see a triangle-cheese-hat-wearing crowd gathered on Rockefeller Plaza as the cameras panned across a cheddar sculpture of “The Today Show” news personalities Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Ann Curry, prior to their interview with Kaufmann.
“That’s what it’s all about ... getting your cheese image on there and delivering a message,” she says. “That was the big kick-off for the Behold the Power of Cheese national campaign, which is still going on today.”
After “The Today Show” appearance in 1996, phone calls came pouring in to Kaufmann’s studio. She has since carved a 6-foot-long, 640-pound replica of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, equipped with miniature F19s landing on the deck of the cheese ship, for the North Island Naval Station in San Diego, California, the ship’s home port. Additional cheese commissions include live cheese carvings at the New York State Fair, a six-foot-long cheddar gator for the University of Florida and a sculpture of Food Network host Marc Summers on the “Cheez” episode of “Unwrapped.”
Today, Kaufmann pursues her sculpture work full-time. And she couldn’t be happier. “It’s sailing,” she says. Kaufmann works on 200 or so sculptures a year, which requires her to purchase thousands of pounds of cheese and travel cross-country. “I’m excited to be doing the cheese now,” she says. “I have wonderful subject matter. It’s never the same thing.”
Her next goal: to wow audiences at Anuga, the largest food show in the world, which takes place in Cologne, Germany.
“And then,” she laughs, “ [it’s on to] Australia, and then France, and then Switzerland ...”
As Kaufmann sees it, the opportunities are endless.