Art is subjective, the saying goes. And one-time art teacher turned full-time artist Ali Villella has found her focus in a place almost anyone can appreciate: cakes.
Villella has combined her talents of baking cakes and artistry into a new business that her clientele is eating up.
Five years ago, the rat race of the Bay Area got to be too much for Villella and her husband, both teachers. She suggested they make a life-changing move to Murphys, where he grew up and still has lots of family. It didn’t take much convincing.
Though her husband went from teaching in the Bay Area to teaching at Avery Middle School, and Villella became a full-time artist, focusing on acrylics, portraits, abstracts and dabbling in different media, beginning Forest and Fauna Artworks.
“Since we moved here, I’ve mainly focused on being home with the kids. Now for this year for the first time they’re both in school,” Villella said. “So, now I have a little bit more time. What I plan to do is launch a series of work. What I have done already is some commission work.”
Villella’s crossover into working with cake began when she was an art teacher in Walnut Creek.
“We worked in all different media. I thought it would be really, really cool for our first-semester final to work in food,” Villella said. “I had the kids break into teams, and for weeks they had to plan a cake design; come up with the design, how it was going to be done. I made all the cakes, made all the fondant, made all the frosting. It was a lot of work.”
Villella said the students were able to come up with a plan and not just “wing it.” The teams were able to create full three-dimensional cake designs, not just sheet cakes cut into shapes.
“They had to find a sturdy way to assemble it, and then apply the fondant, and I showed them how to do all these things,” Villella said. “We turned it into a service project. We did this for a few years.”
When the projects were finished, Villella and her students would take the cakes to senior living facilities to enjoy the sculptures and then eat them.
The process of teaching cake sculpting to her students was an education for Villella as well, since she experimented with techniques and delved deeper into the artform. It wasn’t until moving to Murphys that she really dove in.
“I kind of got a little bit obsessed with it. My daughter was going to be having her third birthday party and she wanted Cinderella, so I started watching all these different tutorials on different cake techniques to take it a step further,” Villella said. “I made her two different Cinderella cakes for her party. They were such a hit—I just put them on my normal Facebook page—that people started asking me to do cakes.”
Her business, The Cake Studio, was unintentionally born at that point.
She’s created baseballs, cacti, monster trucks flying off hills, flower gardens, abstract designs, exploding rainbows, snowscapes with whimsical characters … all in cake form.
And her customers have found her incredibly easy to work with.
“We’ve had about five or six cakes by her now,” said Chris Muetterties of Angels Camp, who first hired Villella to create his daughter’s wedding cake. “The first couple were just taste testing so we could know what wedding cake we wanted because she has unique flavors.”
Muetterties said Villella met with his daughter, Jordan, to find out what she was looking for. He said though their interactions were minimal, Villella went above and beyond, making the process simple.
“It’s very easy to work with her; almost too easy to be honest,” Muetterties said. “(And) her cakes aren’t just beautiful, they taste as good as they look.”
Her cake’s flavors range from the basics of chocolate and vanilla to the aforementioned lemon rosemary and some surprising combinations like a “dirty chai latte,” which mixes coffee, chai tea and vanilla.
The end product and working with Villella is such a pleasure that Muetterties said he and his wife, Carah, are repeat customers.
“I recently got a cake for our 29th wedding anniversary,” Muetterties said. “(Villella) delivered the cake to the restaurant for us. It was a surprise for my wife.”
Muetterties said Villella gave the restaurant instructions on storing the cake until it could be served at the anniversary dinner. He decided the flavor should be a “walk down memory lane,” and chose rosemary lemon.
Most of the cakes require four to five hours for Villella to create, though she said more complex designs have been known to take as much as 12 hours.
“It’s been a learning process and applying my artwork to the cakes has been really fun,” she said. “I like coming up with my own stuff, of course customers want very specific things, and I can do that, but my favorite is when they let me run with it.”