Fine artists often dabble in many mediums before they find their true calling.
"Cheese kind of found me," says Sarah "The Cheese Lady" Kaufmann, the nationally recognized cheese sculptor showcasing her art this weekend at the grand opening of Mariano's Fresh Market in Vernon Hills, where she carves slabs of cheese into Chicago sports logos and mascots.
During her 30-year career, this Michelangelo of formaggio has sculpted cheese into a 300-pound gorilla, a life-size astronaut, a 6-foot-long alligator, an Indy racing car and the Super Bowl trophy -- all with remarkable detail that amazes even her.
"I don't know how I can make a block of cheese into a 3-D thing," admits the 59-year-old Wisconsin native. "I really have had no sculpture training, none, zero."
Her appreciation for cheese comes naturally. "I'm a true cheesehead," she says, referring to her childhood as the third of seven kids in Manitowoc, Wis. Her dad is a mechanic who restores classic cars. Her mom sewed. A brother makes iron sculptures. A sister makes jewelry.
"All of us are arty," Kaufmann says. "I drew all the time as a kid."
She learned a little about calligraphy and making woodcut prints during a year at Silver Lake College in her hometown before receiving an associate degree in commercial art from Madison Area Technical College.
As creative director for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Kaufmann hired some cheese sculptors for projects and developed a desire to try it herself, eventually "making a Leaning Tower of Pisa out of this provolone," she recalls.
In 1981, she carved illustrations of cheese onto a large block of cheese for a presentation on "The Art of Cheese-Making." By 1996, her cheese sculptures were in such demand, she had to quit her job as director of public relations for a unique Ohio grocery to become a full-time artist turning fromage into an homage.
Now living in San Diego, Kaufmann travels the nation's festivals, fairs, trade shows and more, using clay-sculpting tools to carve cheese into everything from violins to busts. She already has performed 56 events so far this year.
"Most of my carvings are Wisconsin cheddar because it's dense and consistent, comes in big sizes and tastes great," Kaufmann says. "I also carve in asiago, provolone, Gruyere, Monterey Jack and aged Gouda. Brie and Feta aren't cooperative."
She sculpts before crowds from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Mariano's, 1720 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Vernon Hills.
Four large blocks of cheese arrived on a pallet, says Justyna Rombalski, merchandising manager for the new store, who adds that she's seen Kaufmann before and is excited about introducing cheese sculpting to customers in Vernon Hills.
"Why not? We don't want the store to be a typical grocery store. We're cheese heads, too," says Rombalski, who clarifies that she is referring to the store's hundreds of specialty cheeses and not an attempt to take sides in the Bears-Packers football rivalry. "The kids love it. Keep them entertained while their parents are shopping."
Kaufmann says she spends hours preparing for her shows, often making detailed sketches. But that can backfire. She had sketches of bunnies and eggs in preparation for a carving around Easter in North Carolina when her excited hosts said, "We heard you are going to do NASCAR," she remembers. Minutes later, she was carving cheddar into race cars and adding numbers at the last minute at the whims of the crowd.
While she charges as little as $400 for a carving onto an edible 5-pound slab of cheese that is popular for weddings and parties, she charges $1,500 for a life-size bust and generally charges a day rate for bigger projects.
"That gator (for the University of Florida) was made from seven 40-pound blocks of cheese and took 57 hours," she says, not counting her sketches and pre-work. Her astronaut took her 83 hours. At this year's Wisconsin State Fair, she plans to set a world record by carving art from a single 1,000-pound block of cheese.
"I generally work a 10-hour day or a 12-hour day, but for a big sculpture, I'll almost always take an all-nighter," she says. "But I love it."
Getting the details by capturing the sparkle in Santa's eye, the wrinkle in a Hall-of-Famer's face or the rivets on an aircraft carrier, "that's what really matters," Kaufmann says, adding that she's always in demand.
"I found a nice niche. I don't have time. So much cheese, so little time," she says, noting she never has to worry about being a "starving artist."
"It's not like clay, butter or chocolate," Kaufmann says of cheese sculpting. "You made a mistake, you can't put it back. You can eat your mistakes, but you can't put them back."