Art is a gift. Bonnie Heller learned this instinctively from an early age. At 5, she would give little drawings or sculptures that she had created to visitors at her family’s home. “I always considered art a gift to share.”
This philosophy continues today. Her path as an artist has developed over decades as she has painted portraits and figures, organic shapes of fruits and vegetables – and hundreds and hundreds of cakes.
“Cakes take us through life’s rituals,” Heller says of birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, holiday celebrations and gatherings for funerals. “Since cake is rarely eaten alone, the community that shares it is a vital piece of that cycle.”
An artistic life
Heller was raised on the North Side of Minneapolis and lived in St. Louis Park for her teen years. “Art was my first love, but, of course, you have to do other things in life, too,” she says. She minored in art at the University of Minnesota and got her master’s in education at the University of St. Thomas. It was the late 1960s, and her degree led her to teaching English for a few years at Harding High School in St. Paul. She married and began to raise a family with two sons and a daughter.
“In those days, you had to carve out the time to make art ,” Heller says. She took painting classes and workshops and shared space with other women artists, each having a small studio in an Edina office building.
Then, 20 years ago, a significant shift happened for Heller when a new artists’ cooperative was forming – Traffic Zone – and she joined in. Today, 22 artists have studio spaces in an old building with a gallery in downtown Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood. “It was a turning-point move,” she says. “It made a professional statement. And, my work got larger.”
Natural light floods in through the tall windows of Heller’s spacious studio. Like a gallery itself, large completed portraits of cakes and figures are displayed on the walls. Three-dimensional cake sculptures – composed of playful, found objects and mosaic tiles – are on pedestals. One corner of her studio is devoted to paintings in progress. She works on several canvases at a time.
“Ha!” she laughs, when asked how many paintings of cakes she has created. “Hundreds!” Cakes started appearing in still-life settings she assembled of fruits and vegetables. “Eventually, I zeroed in on the cakes and they became a central image for me,” she says.
Heller’s cakes on canvases come to her in an endless variety of shapes, colors and textures. Some paintings are whole cakes with vivid flowers and frostings. Many cakes have a single slice removed, allowing the viewer a look into the interior. Sometimes little figures show up alongside the cake, adding a playful human dimension. “Fun or plain, cakes are joyous and fun to paint,” she says.
In terms of process, she applies layer upon layer of acrylic paint until she gets the look that she is after on the canvas.
“Cake is kind of a metaphor for life’s journey,” Heller says. “You often have cakes at celebrations, marking milestones or when people get together. Cakes mark our journeys through life.”
Heller admits she is not much of a baker. “I have one cake that I make,” she says, “a plain and easy recipe from my mother-in-law.” It’s made in a long, tubular pan. “My grandson wants the recipe – and the pan.” Her family has expanded now with seven grandchildren.
“It’s wonderful how we start with the love of food – we pass down these recipes through generations with a way of life and our belief systems, and to celebrate and honor time together,” Heller says. “Cake is just one piece of that.”