Sarah Kaufmann has been carving cheese professionally for three years.
Sarah Kaufmann has been carving cheese professionally for three years. Melissa Forsyth/NPR
Michelangelo used marble. Sarah Kaufmann uses cheese.
What drew this sculptor to her material? A strong affinity for tangy cheddar or the fact that she hails from the proudest cheese state in the nation, Wisconsin?
No, as Kaufmann tells The Salt, "The cheese found me."
What's more, she says, "it's much more delightful than working with wood or stone. You can snack while you work."
Last week, Kaufmann practiced her craft inside a grocery store in Arlington, Va. The sculpture, commissioned for Veterans Day and the Wounded Warrior Project, depicts a soldier carrying an injured comrade over his shoulders.
Kaufmann, in professional circles and beyond, is known as "the Cheese Lady." She's one of three professional cheese sculptors in the U.S., but she's also part of a growing movement of artists bringing food art out of state fairs and into the mainstream. (Check out the Experimental Food Society's site for some wild food art happening on the other side of the pond.)
Sarah Kaufmann uses ceramic tools and a modified draw knife — usually used for wood carvings — to carve cheese.
Sarah Kaufmann uses ceramic tools and a modified draw knife — usually used for wood carvings — to carve cheese. Melissa Forsyth/NPR
Three years ago, Kaufmann was able to make cheese sculpting her full-time job. Weddings, Super Bowl parties, corporate groups and dairy associations keep Kaufmann busy carving into huge blocks of cheese, she says. Her creations have ranged from a life-size Santa Claus to a 6-foot-long model of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.
Kaufmann started the wounded warrior tribute on Tuesday with two 640-pound blocks of Wisconsin medium cheddar. Using ceramic tools and a modified draw knife – usually used for wood carvings — she worked more than 50 hours to finish the sculpture by Friday. The cheese will last up to eight weeks if cared for properly, she says, and then it will be donated to a farm.
"It's emotion," she says of food art. "It comes to life."