I know, I know, this post has been a long time coming, but it’s well worth the wait, I assure you. Though the winners in Julia M. Usher’s 2023 Cookie Art Competition™ were announced at That Takes the Cake Show in Austin, Texas on April 2, they were only announced to the select few in attendance. Given the caliber of the entries, I believe the whole world should know our winners! Plus, even if you were in Austin at the time of the announcement, this post has winners’ bios and the stories behind their pieces, so you’ll get to know a lot more about each cookie artist and her inspiration.

But, before the big reveal, a few very important acknowledgements are in order.

2023 Competition Observations and Thank-Yous

First, though this post only shows the work of the entrants who took home prizes (that is, those who placed first, second, and third) in each category, every entrant is ultimately a winner just for having gotten a piece on the competition table. Seeing a complex idea through to fruition is 90% or more of the challenge! So bravo to everyone!

Second . . . as you probably know by now, this year’s competition awarded nearly $18,000 in prizes, of which over $8,000 was cash – a pretty remarkable number considering it was raised in the short period of about two months between the 2022 and 2023 competitions. On average, each of our 12 winners took home about $1,481 in cash and gift certificates. Wow! A HUGE thank-you to our sponsors – the incredibly generous companies, their owners, and teams who rallied in record speed to make our return-to-in-person year so abundant. I urge all of you to visit our sponsors’ sites on our dedicated sponsor page. Buy some of their wonderful products, share their sites on social media, or write them thank-you notes. In other words, do what you can to show them your love so that we can continue to enhance the value that this competition brings to cookiers next year.

Last but not least, thanks to our über-talented and experienced judges who invested nearly 24 hours in entry review, scoring, and evaluation on the show floor in Austin. After we all left the show, nearly two weeks was spent compiling detailed feedback forms and notes for those entrants who requested this information. Since my competition is primarily about learning and growth, and much less about who places or doesn’t place, the feedback process takes priority for me, which is why I am just now writing this post. I sincerely hope those who requested and received feedback have found it helpful.

On another note: Sadly, longstanding judge Sandie Beltran ended up not being able to make the trip to Austin. While we missed her deeply and look forward to her to return to judging in 2024, my able-bodied team of three (plus me) carried on with its usual thoughtful deliberations! Without this team, this competition would not have been possible, so let’s give all of the judges a well-deserved round of applause  . . .

Now, back to the reason we’re all here – seeing the winners and their winning pieces! As a reminder, we awarded prizes in four categories/skill level classifications: (1) 2-D Cookie/Beginner-Intermediate; (2) 2-D Cookie/Advanced-Master; (3) 3-D Cookie/Beginner-Intermediate; and (4) 3-D Cookie/Advanced-Master. For definitions of these categories/classifications, please visit last year’s Competition Overview post. In addition to choosing first-, second-, and third-place winners, judges awarded each winner with a gold, silver, or bronze designation related to how many points she received out of the total possible. In short, any entrant receiving 70%-79% of their category’s total possible points is a bronze medal winner; 80%-89% is a silver medal winner, and 90% or more is a gold medal winner. Directly below, you’ll find a quick video shout-out to our very deserving winners, first posted a couple of weeks ago. Note that the winner’s medal designation appears in the lower right of her photo.

Just incredible, right?! But, take it from me, one who has looked at these entries quite closely, there is so much more to them that this video doesn’t adequately capture. Please read on to see larger pictures of each winning entry, as well as each entrant’s bio and notes about how she interpreted this year’s theme (International Holidays). At the end of this post, you’ll find the judges’ pick for the Kerry Vincent Best in Show Award, so please stay with me to that very important point. Congrats to all of the winners on their remarkable pieces and the persistence, ingenuity, and creativity that went into them!

2-D Cookie/Beginner-Intermediate Winners

Third-Place Winner/Bronze Medal

Entry Name: Journey to Resurrection

Julie Gowen is a native of San Antonio, Texas, and a hobbyist/cottage baker. Julie took her first cookie decorating class in February 2019 and was hooked. During the pandemic, she began working from home, which afforded her the opportunity to practice cookie decorating between seeing her clients on telehealth. She soon discovered some wonderful cookie decorators on Facebook, attended a few Facebook Live classes, and began giving her creations to a couple of hospitals. Julie loves the whole world of cookie decorating and has attended two CookieCons as well as various cookie retreats since that time. She enjoys making cookies and often tells people who say they are too pretty to eat that “cookies are for eating.” To learn more about Julie and her work, please visit her on Instagram.

Julie on Theme Interpretation: “Inspiration for my piece came from my pilgrimage to the Holy City (2018), my church’s stained-glass windows, and the fact that work on this project occurred during Lent. I was deeply touched by my pilgrimage, therefore my focus was on Easter and Jesus’ death and resurrection. I visited the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested before his crucifixion. Prominent in the garden was a huge olive tree (pictured upper left in my piece) that was said to be 2,000+ years old. Depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion, his cross, and shroud take center stage at bottom left and upper right. Jesus’ empty tomb with the stone rolled away appears in the fourth vignette (bottom right). After cutting the cookies, I realized they were separated by a cross.” [EDITOR’S NOTE: A perfect, albeit unplanned, theme tie-in! ~JMU]

Second-Place Winner/Bronze Medal

Entry Name: International Women’s Day

Antonia Giefer was born and raised in Ecuador. Antonia has a masters degree in environmental law. She and her family of four moved to Austin, Texas from the Pacific Northwest in 2020. The pandemic allowed Antonia a chance to discover a passion for making delicious edible art. “I feel joy when my cookies can be part of your special moment!” To learn more about Antonia and her work, please visit her on Instagram.

Antonia on Theme Interpretation: “Suyay, the protagonist of my piece, is an Ecuadorian indigenous girl who, while taking care of her sheep, dreams of what she wants to be. The innocence of a child looks past the economic, social, and gender inequality gaps. I want the viewer to experience Suyay’s dreams: to laugh with her in the laboratory, to celebrate with her when she wins her candidacy for president, and to applaud her courage as she referees a World Cup soccer match. Her sheep accompanies her in each cookie, representing hope, friendship, and advocacy. After feeling tenderness through her eyes and seeing her laugh with her toothless mouth, I invite the viewer to finish the story. Suyay, remembers what she wanted to become. Suyay means ‘hope’ in Quechua, the Incan language.”

First-Place Winner/Silver Medal

Entry Name: Holi – Festival of Colors

Jessica Abrons has a professional background in nursing, including a master of science degree in nursing education and a RN ambulatory care certification. Jessica’s nursing career ended in November 2021 when diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). As a result, she was in a bad state of mind for months, and was left mourning the life once had and fearing the road ahead. Jessica’s cookie journey began in December 2021 when she volunteered to bring decorated sugar cookies to a potluck. How hard could baking and decorating sugar cookies be? Well, the joke was on Jessica! The cookies were hideous! She had no clue what she was doing. Nonetheless, she was hooked. Jessica’s mind was completely consumed by cookies and figuring out the science behind everything royal icing-related. She utilized YouTube and social media to seek out different techniques and styles, and eventually ventured into virtual classes and learned from some incredible cookie artists. As a result, her home-based business, Whiskey Crumbs, was created in February 2022. Cookie decorating has been Jessica’s therapy, and she is immensely grateful to this amazing community for sharing its wisdom and talent with the world. Her wonderful husband and three children are her  “why.” To learn more about Jessica and her work, please visit her on Instagram.

Jessica on Theme Interpretation: “I had purchased materials to start on a different project when a news article about Holi swept across my phone notifications. I was instantly intrigued by the history of the holiday and the colors, so I had to learn more about the Festival of Colors. The vision I had for my entry was to capture the beauty of Holi: the culture, vibrant colors, community, and onset of spring. Holi celebrates the triumph of good over evil, which resonated with me, because I feel as though we need more brightness and color in this crazy world in which we live.”

2-D Cookie/Advanced-Master Winners

Third-Place Winner/Bronze Medal

Entry Name: Ghoul’s Day Magazine Cookie

Heather Salmon-Caines is the owner/artist of Carlow Cakery in rural New Brunswick, Canada. Art has been Heather’s life since childhood. At the age of 19, she graduated from college as a graphic artist, and, roughly 15 years ago, she found her passion in the edible art world. She enjoys learning and developing new techniques with edible mediums. Although she considers herself a jack of all trades, her specialties include 3-D sculpting, edible painting, and isomalt work. This competition marked her first in-person competition, and she is so grateful that her cookie was appreciated by such an esteemed panel of judges. To learn more about Heather and her work, please visit her on Facebook.

Heather on Theme Interpretation (and Her Piece): “My ‘Ghoul’s Day Magazine’ piece was inspired by the Headless Horseman lore. The base dark chocolate cookie measured 12 1/4 x 14 inches. The horseman’s head and horse head were sculpted using dark chocolate cookie dough. The base, horseman’s head, and horse head were handpainted with several layers of royal icing. These pieces were then accented with edible paints and dusts. The skeleton was piped and dusted. The cloak was made with Icing Images FlexFrost and dusted with Roxy & Rich Hybrid Dust. The eyes and forelock were made with poured and pulled Simi Cakes isomalt. The title and story headline were handpainted and piped on Icing Images SmArt Sheets. The edges were burned and dusted. The paper edge was also created with SmArt Sheets. The moon was handpainted using royal icing. The tree was painted with a palette knife and dusted for dimension.”

Second-Place Winner/Bronze Medal

Entry Name: On Tuesdays, We Wear Beads

Heather Brookshire is an award-winning sugar artist from Spring, Texas and is the owner of her very own cottage-bakery, The Cake Whisperer. Her love for cake and cookie decorating began at the young age of 12 when she took Wilton courses at Michaels. She enjoys playing with cookies, gingerbread, and buttercream for sugar arts competitions and was recently a competitor on Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship Gingerbread Showdown. When she’s not in the kitchen, she plans magical vacations for families traveling to Disney and Universal theme parks. And when she needs a break herself, Heather enjoys traveling with her husband, friends, and extended family on cruises and to cake shows or theme parks around the country. To learn more about Heather and her work, please visit her on Instagram.

Heather on Theme Interpretation: “When it comes to celebrations, few throw as good of a party as New Orleans during Mardi Gras. This tradition is celebrated the world over in slightly different ways but I was drawn to New Orleans’ version of indulgence because of the architecture of the city and how important it is to the people there. Plus, the food and music are so lively! Let the good times roll!”

First-Place Winner/Silver Medal

Entry Name: Balinese Holiday

Alicia Arbaugh is a physical therapist assistant by day and a cookier by night. Alicia’s hobbies include traveling, running, and hanging out with rescue dogs. She has been decorating cookies for about seven years now, entering and placing in various competitions along the way. Working on cookies lets Alicia explore her creative side. She is honored to win first place in the 2-D category of Julia M. Usher’s Cookie Art Competition™ again this year. To learn more about Alicia and her work, please visit her on Instagram[EDITOR’S NOTE: Alicia first won in this category in 2020 when the competition made its in-person debut in Austin at That Takes the Cake Show. ~JMU]

Alicia on Theme Interpretation: “When creating my International Holiday entry, I wanted to convey the literal interpretation of the theme and the British meaning of holiday (vacation). Barong masks are used in Balinese holidays, including their most holy holiday, Galungan Day. This is when they celebrate the return of their ancestral spirits to earth and the triumph of good over evil. I love the look and detail of Balinese barong masks and wanted to incorporate one into a travel poster.”

3-D Cookie/Beginner-Intermediate Winners

Third-Place Winner/Honorable Mention

Entry Name: Sukkot – The Jewish Celebration of Harvest

Bobbie Jill Young is owner of Cookies for Ewe, a new cottage bakery in Austin, Texas. Bobbie Jill began decorating cookies as a hobby. In 2018, Bobbie Jill was awarded first place for her “Starry Night” entry at That Takes the Cake Show in the beginner cookie division. This year, she was very excited to place third in the 3-D Beginner-Intermediate category of Julia M. Usher’s Cookie Art Competition™ with the entry pictured above. Bobbie Jill also placed first in the breakfast pastry tasting competition. Her winning entry was created using a combination of her cookie recipe and her great grandmother’s pie dough recipe. Bobbie Jill enjoys creating adorable custom cookies that bring smiles to cookie lovers of all ages. Her cookies are especially known for their delicious taste. When not baking, Bobbie Jill enjoys spending time gardening, feeding squirrels, and traveling the world with her husband. To learn more about Bobbie Jill and her work, please visit her on Instagram.

Bobbie Jill on Theme Interpretation: “I enjoyed creating entry pieces for this year’s competition theme of International Holidays. I used this theme as an opportunity to celebrate my Jewish heritage with entries that focused on the major holidays. Sukkot is a festival held in the fall to remember the sheltering of the Israelites in the wilderness and to celebrate the fall harvest. It also commemorates the forty years Jews spent in the desert when they escaped slavery in Egypt. A sukkah is a temporary hut and is often decorated in an autumn theme, such as with colorful fall leaves or branches. Harvested items are placed underneath it for the celebration.”

Second-Place Winner/Honorable Mention

Entry Name: Christmas Cookie Truck

Jaci Dayton is a mom, daycare worker, wedding coordinator, artist, baker, and chef. Back in 2015 during a wedding cake class in college, she had to enter That Takes The Cake Competition, and there she fell in love with cakes and cookies. Her favorite mode of decorating is to handpaint cookies with cocoa butter, but she also loves to experiment with everything! For now, cookie decorating is just her weekend hobby, but she keeps striving to learn new things from everyone she can in order to better her skills. To learn more about Jaci and her work, please visit her on Facebook.

Jaci on Theme Interpretation: “To me, ‘International Holidays’ means encompassing the whole world to celebrate every individual. It’s a way of being all-inclusive and to view different cultures through one another’s eyes. There are so many holidays to learn about and observe, so this theme really helped to make people more aware of others. I chose this design because it reminds me of Christmas but with a spin. Wouldn’t it be neat if ice cream trucks turned into Christmas cookie trucks every holiday? Imagine you step out onto your porch after a snow blizzard just rolled in. What do you see parked at the end of the street? A cookie truck covered in a fresh blanket of snow, which doesn’t stop the owners from serving up fresh warm cookies!”

First-Place Winner/Bronze Medal

Entry Name: Renewal in the Year of the Dragon

Kristyn Wighton-Tiofack is originally from Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, and now lives in Georgia, USA. Kristin has had an interest in desserts and pastries since a very young age. She loves that her artistic skills are able to shine through to décor on cakes and cookies. Her favorite thing about desserts is how they always put a smile on everyone’s face. Julia’s competition was the first one she had ever entered, and she is excited to fine-tune her skills and compete again in the future. To learn more about Kristin and her work, please visit her on Instagram.

Kristin on Theme Interpretation: “I chose Chinese New Year and specifically the Year of the Dragon (2024) as it is supposed to promote luck. It is said that, in the Year of the Dragon, more babies are born than under any other zodiac sign. I also chose to represent cherry blossoms in my work, as they signify renewal and the start of spring. They also promote fertility. I hope that the Year of the Dragon will bring my husband and me luck in having our first child! The symbols on the lanterns are health, wealth, happiness, and love, which I feel coincide with the renewal and luck that the new year brings.”

3-D Cookie/Advanced-Master Winners

Third-Place Winner/Silver Medal

Entry Name: Ready for Easter

Susie Jacobs was once a high school English teacher, but nowadays is a sugar artist from League City, Texas, who runs a home-based cake decorating business, SusieMakes. Her cakes have won multiple awards and been published in several magazines. She is still relatively new to the cookie world, but she enjoys experimenting with the possibilities of cookie art. Susie also enjoys traveling to cake shows for competitions and classes. She loves learning techniques that can be used on both cakes and cookies and is happily doing a little bit of everything in the sugar art world. Out of the kitchen, Susie enjoys gardening, painting, raising butterflies, and spending precious time with her husband and four kids. To learn more about Susie and her work, please visit her on Instagram.

Susie on Theme Interpretation: “Easter has always been a very important religious holiday to me, but I also find beauty in combining its religious and secular aspects, because I have kids, and it’s fun to make a little magic too. We go to mass on Easter Sunday, and while there, the Easter Bunny delivers baskets filled with gifts and hides eggs in our yard. My kids delight in finding their treats after celebrating the resurrection of Christ. They are getting older now, and the magic is almost gone. With this in mind, I created my piece to represent some items a growing young lady might take and wear to Easter Sunday mass. Springtime colors and flowers to be worn; I imagine these are sitting on her dressing table, in anticipation of a beautiful day. A basketweave clutch reminds her of the Easter baskets of her childhood; bright neon eggs have been replaced with something a little ‘fancier’; and her jewelry consists of understated pearl stud earrings and a cameo brooch of the Blessed Mother. A tulip she picked from the garden rests beside her accessories and her old prayer book. It is a season of new life and faith and growth.”

Second-Place Winner/Silver Medal

Entry Name: Liam the Leprechaun

Kelly Powell is the owner of Sweet Tooth ATX, LLC in Austin, Texas. In 2006, she started her sweet journey exploring the artistic side of food, avidly pursuing the art of baking and cake designing. She didn’t even decorate her first cookie until 2011. In 2013, Kelly started her teaching career as a Wilton Method Instructor. In 2017, she hung up her purple apron and moved to a local decorator’s supply shop and classroom, Make It Sweet. There, she was able to spread her wings and teach all manner of classes from beginner-level cake and cookie classes, like Buttercream 101 and Cookie Bouquets, to more advanced classes like Advanced Fondant Techniques and Cookie Platters. She has been competing since 2009 and has become an award-winning decorator and baker. The most important thing to her when competing is to try new things, and to tackle self-directed projects she doesn’t normally get the chance to do. To learn more about Kelly and her work, please visit her on Facebook.

Kelly on Theme Interpretation: “For my International Holidays-themed entry, I chose St. Patrick’s Day. In my mind it was one of only a handful of holidays celebrated around the world with iconology and imagery that cannot be mistaken. Everyone knows the myth of leprechauns, and their treasure at the end of the rainbow. Leprechauns are capricious and mischievous little fairies who amass their tiny fortunes by making shoes for the other woodland faerie folk who pay with tiny gold coins. As the story goes, after being captured by a couple of farmers, a leprechaun tricked them into letting him go by offering his tiny fortune that he hid at the end of the rainbow in exchange for his freedom. With a wink and a nod, he left the farmers to chase the end of the rainbow, forever looking for his tiny fortune. For the end of the rainbow, one shall never find.”

First-Place Winner/Gold Medal

Entry Name: Holiday Express

Ganna Oliinyk is a 42-year-old cookie decorating master from Ukraine, currently living in San Antonio, Texas. She is passionate about creating beautiful and delicious treats for all occasions. Ganna is a proud mother of two, and has a wonderful family that supports her in her craft. She started her journey in baking seven years ago by decorating Christmas cookies for her kids, but in a short time, it became obvious that cookie decorating is her passion and calling. Moving to the USA in 2022 was difficult, but it also opened up new horizons that Ganna is so excited to explore. To learn more about Ganna and her work, please visit her on her site sundaycookers.com.

Ganna on Theme Interpretation: “My entry, Holiday Express, offers Easter, Christmas, Halloween, and Thanksgiving family holidays. These holidays are reminders of our family traditions and cherished values. Decorating cookies and moving from one holiday to another keep us going through life’s challenges. Holiday Express allows us to board the train and travel from car to car, tradition to tradition, spreading joy and happiness among family members. We can make each moment count and keep our family happy under any circumstance.”

Kerry Vincent Best in Show Award Winner

And, last but not least, the unveiling of the coveted Kerry Vincent Best in Show Award! This award is given each year to the one entry across all categories/classifications that best demonstrated impeccable skill, attention to detail, design innovation or aptitude, and/or high style – all hallmarks of Kerry Vincent’s legendary designs. And, this year, the award went to (drumroll, please) . . .

Congrats again, Ganna! One judge noted, “This entrant was one of few to represent multiple holidays in her piece, which I though was very on point, as the theme is ‘International Holidays’, plural, not ‘International Holiday’. But, more importantly, I enjoyed her personal interpretation of connecting the family by traveling through the holidays together year after year. Choosing a train to convey this journey was a clever thought.” Another said, “Brilliant work! This entry displays a wide range of decorating and construction techniques, all well combined in a harmonious display with great 360-degree viewability.” Still another summed up the judges’ collective sentiments quite well, “I am so impressed with all of the wonderfully executed details and surprise elements (faces and figures) peeking out of every car; the piped and painted figures were expertly done and so charming – they really underscored the sense of joy that comes with the holidays. I also appreciated the attention paid to achieving metallic and shiny effects, particularly on the engine and in the lights. The wide range of textures and finishes lends a lot of extra interest to the piece.” As you can see, the judges were universally charmed by Ganna’s magnificent piece.

And, on that congratulatory note, I conclude this year’s official winner reveal! Thanks again to That Takes the Cake Show for hosting the competition; to our judges for laboring over every entry detail to make these very difficult decisions; to our sponsors for their overwhelming generosity; and, most of all, to EVERY entrant who had the courage and persistence to get an entry on the table. You are all winners in my book.

Stay tuned to the competition section of this blog for details about the 2024 competition. My aim is to post theme, rules, and other info this fall! Of course, I can’t wait to see you all outdo yourselves once again next year!