Soon after bringing my first child home from the hospital, I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, no. Now I have to make cakes.” For some reason in that moment, the responsibility of baking and meticulously frosting cakes for the next 20 years or so scared me. I was sleep deprived, feeling inadequate to care for this tiny newborn, and now I was realizing I needed to also learn to make decorative birthday cakes. I had an entire year to learn how—if I was to be the cake-maker for her first birthday—but that wasn’t the point. The birthday cake was another thing I wasn’t good at, but felt I was expected to master and accomplish repeatedly in order to be a good mother.

The cakes my mom made for us growing up were not over-the-top fancy, but they were a huge part of my memory of birthdays. I remember telling my mom that I wanted a clown cake when I was a preschooler, and I remember that she bought a Wilton clown-shaped pan and then decorated the clown cake with star-shaped peaks of frosting. Other times my cake was in a heart shape, and once, my grandma and I shared a cake shaped like two overlapping hearts. The most common form was a rectangular sheet cake frosted with white buttercream icing. Mom would ask us to choose our color of frosting for the star-tip border and for the writing. There was something so comforting about that white frosted cake with colored icing details showing up birthday after birthday. It was a repetition that brought comfort.

And now I’m the mom. While I kind of hate to admit this for fear of sounding like a horrible human, it wasn’t the new skills needed to decorate cakes alone that scared me; it was the time required to create a completely transient work of art. A cake would displace other activities I saw as more lasting and satisfying. Cakes are labored over, seen for only a few moments, sung over, then cut into pieces and consumed. The artist’s work returns to…well, you know. Such a short life cycle!

My host for a recent exhibition at a local gallery held a special reception for her mother-friends to come see my Re-iterations mixed media pieces. The informal atmosphere allowed us to talk a bit about our lives. One of the women asked me how I find time to make any art with three children. My answer was “little by little, here and there.” She replied that she hasn’t been able to make art since having kids, and her friend broke in to tell me about the fantastic cakes and birthday parties this woman creates—thematically coordinated food, costumes, decorations, games. Yet this artist-mother dismissed her birthday bashes as less-than-consequential in the presence of my fine art exhibition.

Yet I suspect she doesn’t really believe her efforts are completely unimportant. I think she knows deep down how much these events mean, or she wouldn’t put all this effort into them. While she knows that events and cakes are transient, that even the costumes are ruined in play, she still continues to put forth a tremendous amount of energy and effort in the midst of the normal routine of raising a family. I had been wanting to make a series of mixed media works based on the forms and concepts of cakes, so the conversation stuck with me.

Not long after, I was reading Sarah Ruhl’s hilarious and insightful 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. She mentions Buddhist monks who create elaborate sculptures using colorfully-dyed butter. Once the sculptures have expired, they feed them to monkeys. Yes. That’s it. I have a hard time imagining my elaborate buttercream icing sculptures being cut into pieces and eaten by a room full of preschooler monkeys.

I have a hard time seeing any of my work being undone in any way, though. I struggle when the newly cleaned bathroom is dirty within minutes, when the laundry basket is full again, when the sink and counters are full of dishes so soon. With 5 of us living in one house, many of the actions that are so valuable to keeping order and nourishing and protecting others seem to be negated right away, or at least the evidence of all effort. There is often seemingly no trace all of an entire day’s work! The transience scares me because I’m afraid I’m not really getting anything done. Or I’m afraid that others will think I haven’t done anything all day when they see this house. I’m a hamster on a wheel.

I have an artist friend who comes from a family of musical professionals. Her decision to major in art instead of music in college was based partly on her estimation of the transience of music. It’s ephemeral. It’s here in the present, then disappears into oblivion, was her thinking. The visual arts felt more lasting, more long term. Instead of making fine art, though, she now has a cake business. What irony. Now her sculptures are eaten within hours of completion.

I heard a lecture by Robert Hughes in grad school that highlighted the unbelievably small percentage of art that actually survives in the world. I had tended to think of our museums as citadels to protect great works of art so that they could live forever, but a very high percentage of art is lost to war, weather, burglary, poor construction, and the normal wear and tear of time. We might think of art objects as timeless and lasting, but they are subject to the degradation that all matter is subject to.

It’s this constant mind-battle I fight, trying to answer, “What is lasting?” Are cakes with their buttercream icing lasting? How about oil paintings on panel or canvas? Are the memories of a birthday party enduring? Do they have eternal value? I’ve come to believe that anything done while abiding in Christ, somehow lasts, because it is Christ working in me—and His work is enduring. If I bake a cake out of love for my family, or if I work on an oil painting or a mixed media sculpture out of a desire to care for others and worship God, it lasts. I don’t understand how it lasts, but it lasts. Even though these cakes and works of art are made of matter—flour and sugar and butter or paint and wood and nails—if they are done as an act of worship and love, a cooperation with God’s creative work, they last.

 Though my Re-iterations series began as a simple attempt just make something—anything at all!—it quickly became a way for me to think through the parts of my life that I don’t quite understand yet, or don’t know how to make peace with. Many of my earlier pieces referenced the never-ending loads of laundry or my ongoing battle with dirty dishes. Somehow, and perhaps this is the power of art, I have come to appreciate and even like housework a little more, as I’ve contemplated, read about, written about, made art about, and honored these forms of domestic repetition.

In the same way, spending a year developing my “cake” sculptures has taken the edge off actual cake making for me. Attempting cakes for my family’s celebrations feels much less threatening to me now. Perhaps some of this comes from all the research into cake forms and techniques as I worked on the sculptures. I think it also come from making peace with the pressures I, as an American mom, feel about trying to make the perfect birthday for my children. I’ve had hours in the studio to process my fears about the significance of traditions, about the expectations of holidays, and the sheer weight of the burden of creating memories for others.

Sometime last summer my daughter asked me if I would make her a fancy cake when her birthday came around. Though I had made her a 6-month old and first birthday cake, all cakes in the family since then have been made by friends or bought at grocery stores or substituted with donuts. Finally she was letting me know that a specially decorated cake was important to her. So the week of her birthday I cleared an entire day and baked and frosted until late in the evening.

It took a couple trips to the grocery story, a couple calls to my mom, a text asking advice from a friend, and plenty of sugar, butter, food coloring, and time, but I did it. Only this time, I wasn’t making a cake because it was what moms have to do or they’re bad moms (because they don’t and they aren’t). It wasn’t because I needed to impress everyone with the perfect party or my excellent skills (getting frosting to behave is so much harder than I imagined). Instead I was making a cake for a little girl who asked for one. I was thinking of my mom and the cakes I watched her decorate. I was thinking of the women who make cakes to varying levels of artistry and perfection, not to be perfect, but to care for those they love. 

Michelle Radford