- Cheese sculptor Sarah Kaufmann next to her Veteran's Day cheese carving. (Photo: TBD Staff)
In the middle of the produce section of the Harris Teeter in Pentagon City sits 1,280 pounds of orange medium cheddar. Roped off on three sides and surrounded by shoppers snapping photos, the cheese is a modified replica of the Wounded Warrior sculpture—one soldier carrying another across his back.
Cheese sculptor Sarah Kaufmann buzzes about her creation in a pair of cow-print pants and glinting gold cheese-shaped earrings. “It looks like it could be a bronze,” she says. “And it’s cheese.”
Carved from two 640-pound blocks of Wisconsin cheddar, the same sold in Harris Teeter under the store brand label, the piece was commissioned for Veteran's Day and the result of “a little engineering I dreamed up,” Kaufmann says. Because cheese cannot hold its own weight, she had to insert vertical rods and other supports between the pieces before they were combined with a forklift. The actual sculpting took more than 50 hours.
Kaufmann, now based in San Diego but a Wisconsin native, has been carving cheese and nothing else for 15 years. After leaving her job as an art director for a commercial agency, she took up freelance cheese sculpture and went full-time six years ago.
Cheddar is her primary medium. “Cheddar is firm and solid and dense and consistent,” she explains. “It comes in big blocks. These 640s work perfectly.” When she can, Kaufmann works in other cheeses as well.
“I’ll inlay white cheddar for teeth and eyeballs,” she says. Other cheeses in her toolbox: “Gruyere, asiago, provolone, and aged goudas. Some pepperjack.”
The worst cheese for sculpting (excepting, of course, the obviously soft varieties like feta or ricotta) is a wheel of Swiss, according to Kaufmann. “The holes are never where you want them,” she says. “Swiss wheels, I avoid those. Unless I’m planning on doing a man on the moon.”
Kaufmann isn’t particularly caught up in the question of whether she’s make art with a capital A or commercial work. “That’s a lifelong debate,” she says. “I sure can draw. I can draw as good as anyone with an MFA. …I always have a theme, a purpose, a client. But I make a beautiful visual.”
Shoppers are reacting strongly to the piece, particularly those with a military connection. One veteran brought her a framed flag to set at the base of the sculpture. “They’re coming in and telling me stories,” Kaufmann says. “Cheese carving really brings out the stories.”
And, no, she does not eat the cheese while working. “I’m carving a man,” she explains. “I’m carving fingers. I forget I’m carving cheese. It’s like a cake decorator. After the 1,000th cake, you stop licking the knife.”