This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2016.
It wasn’t my dream to be a cheese sculptor. Cheese found me.
I’ve been carving cheese for 20 years. I mostly carve live on location because people love to watch these crazy cheese sculptures—like my 200-pound alligator or 1,900-pound astronaut—get made. Most of the time, I carve in grocery stores where we do cheese promotions for Wisconsin and multiple state promotion boards, cheese distributors, and corporate groups. I travel all over the country to do my work, from Anchorage to the very tip of Maine and Seattle, to every state in between. I’ve carved at Disneyland, Disney World, and six out of the last nine Super Bowls. I set a Guinness World Record for the largest cheese sculpture at 925 pounds at the Wisconsin State Fair in 2011.
I always liked to draw and do art as a kid. My whole family is very artsy. I went to school for commercial art—studying advertising graphics—and then worked for the American Dairy Association (ADA) of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) for many years as their art director. And I would hire people to carve cheese for us. I just loved seeing the sculptures come in. I was kind of jealous, and thought, I want to do that, but it never dawned on me to pursue carving cheese.
I made my very first sculpture when I just started working for the ADA of Wisconsin. We did a slideshow on the art of cheesemaking and I was trying to figure out what I should do for the cover slide. So I thought, I’ll do a woodcut in cheese.
I carved the words “Art of Cheesemaking”—woodcut-style—in the cheese and that became part of the slideshow. I just thought a cheese woodcut was a good medium and clever idea to do. That was way back in 1981, and I really didn’t think about cheese carving at all after that, so I didn’t do another carving until many years later.
But when I left the WMMB, they called me up to carve cheese for them at trade shows and grocery store events. I had moved on to another advertising job by that time, so I was traveling to do these events even though I already had a full-time gig. Luckily, my boss was an entrepreneur himself and would let me go on these trips to carve. In the beginning, he asked, “This isn’t going to be a steady thing, is it?” And I said, “Oh, just once in awhile.” But in the first six months I worked for him, I had 32 jobs, including one at the Super Bowl. The amount of work grew and grew over the next couple of years until I had to quit the advertising job because I was never there.
I worked like a dog before in commercial art, and now I work like a dog in cheese, but I’m working for myself and I love it because I’m doing art again. This medium isn’t marble and it’s not in a fine art museum, and I don’t have a B.A., M.F.A., or Ph.D in fine arts—but I don’t care. I’m busy. How many people do you know went to school for fine art and they have 650 paintings under their bed? I can’t keep up with the work.
I’ve carved over 3,000 cheese sculptures—and then I lost count. The six-foot-long gator I sculpted continues to be one of my favorites. I did that 18 years ago. It was huge and complicated and just gorgeous. It took 57 hours to make.
As for working with cheese, it’s a subtractive medium. It’s like wood or stone—not like clay, cake, or butter—you can’t put it back. I work in cheddar 90 percent of the time because it’s dense and consistent, holds up very well, tastes great and the price is right. It comes in big sizes, from 40- to 10,000-pound blocks and wheels. I can use other cheeses—like Gruyere, aged Gouda, Parmesans, Asiago and aged provolones—but they have to be firm because they need to stay up. I’ll frequently work in 90-degree weather, and the cheese, of course, warms up but it doesn’t melt. And really you can can push it. Cheese is not so fragile that it will spoil right there and rot. What happens is it shortens its overall shelf life.
The very few tools I use are really simple. My main ones are clay tools like ceramic wire loops, and then there’s my monstrous, double-handle cheese knife that’s used to cut the blocks into pieces. Of course, I use bigger tools when I’ve got big chunks to take off. But what’s the main tool? Patience. You really have to have patience. I tell the kids, “Scrape, scrape, scrape, and dig, dig, dig.” That’s all it is, really—hours and hours of this. Sometimes I think, “Oh jeez, I just want to get this over with.” But you just have to take your time and scrape and get it done.
I’ll usually do an all-nighter or work until 3 A.M. and lay down for a couple of hours and get up again and dig, but it’s like magic when you’re doing it as an artist. Finally, after hours and hours of digging all the cheese away, I can work on the details like the hair, inlay the white teeth and put the brown color in the eyes—and all of a sudden it’s alive.
I’m 64 now. I need to find apprentices to train because there’s more cheese work than I can do. I’m also starting to get the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome. (I miraculously lasted these 20 years without anything and then it just kind of crept up on me.) And for my clients, it would be great to be able to say, “Well, I can send so-and-so in my place and you’ll be very happy.”
The longest setup I normally do is at the Indiana State Fair for ten straight days of prepping and live carving. For most of these big on-location jobs, I work with 500- to 1,000-pound wheels or 640-pound blocks of cheese. For the Indiana State Fair, thousands of people stream by all day long, asking hundreds of questions like, “Is that real cheese? How much cheese is that? What are you going to do with all that cheese when you’re done?” So, while I’m working, I’m talking to people about nutrition, cheese carving, and cheesemaking history.
This is not about, “Oh, let’s make a pretty sculpture.” It’s all about media and getting the message out. And I know this because I worked in advertising. There’s a lot more work behind these carvings. You don’t just go there and carve the picture. You have to go there, flip and flop this 500-pound wheel, and pull wires through to split the cheese into different sections, then wrap it, cut your samples, and then go carve it while talking to people.
So, next year for the Indiana State Fair we’re going to work with a local high school or college and get some sculptors to come and learn. It would be good. I could have them digging and doing this massive sculpture for hours and then I can go and do the refinements and that would be fun. I don’t have to be the star. I just want the sculpture to be great!
As told to Jean Trinh.