Vancouver Artist Makes Avant-Garde Candies Too Pretty To Eat
Why we’re sweet on Sweet Saba.
If you think that candy is just for children, then you haven’t seen the sweets that Maayan Zilberman has been cranking out lately. The Vancouver producer, who has lived and worked in New York for more than a decade, has caught the attention of everyone from the New York Times to Vogue with the artistically-inspired candies that she’s spent the last year creating out of her Park Slope apartment under the name Sweet Saba. And while they started out as a fun way for Zilberman to pass a particularly brutal east coast winter, they’ve grown into a full-fledged business—and a cultural phenomenon, too. The Times described her work as “conceptual candy,” and no wonder—they’re so interesting to look at that some customers actually forego the part where they actually consume them. “A lot of people say they’ll put it in a case or frame it,” Zilberman says. “I’ve had that happen.”
While she’s made a variety of candies in the course of her ongoing experimentation with the form, Zilberman says that hard candy is her medium of choice. “I’ve made gummy candies and chewing gum and all different kinds of flavours, but the hard candy is what resonated with people. That’s what people really liked the most. And, also, the hard candy lends itself to a lot of the subject matter I’m working with right now.”
But no matter what she’s using, she says that her candies all have to come with a story. “Sometimes it’s very smooth and perfect, and sometimes it’s really rough—it depends on what the image is and what the story is that’s being told. I think that’s a lot of what’s missing in the pastry world. Everything’s very precious, and I like the idea of it having more of a story—more of a narrative.”
That narrative is reflected in some of her more popular products, which include hard candy sunglasses, lipsticks, and mix-tapes, and speak to her upbringing as a child of the late 1980s and early 1990s. “It’s totally biographical work,” she says. Much of that biography, meanwhile, was written in Vancouver, where she learned to cook and bake while watching her grandfather operate in the kitchen. “My grandfather used to work for the Hadassah Bazaar—I think they had it at the PNE, and it was a big bazaar that was a fundraiser for my grandmother’s Jewish sisterhood chapter. Once a year, we’d have to bake all these cheesecakes at home—it was a tradition in our family. Then we’d sell them, and they’d raise money for their chapter. And that’s where I learned how to bake. It’s a very Vancouver thing.” It also explains why she named her new candy company Sweet Saba—Saba, in Hebrew, means “grandfather.”
This isn’t the first time that Zilberman has made a name for herself in New York, mind you. In 2007 she co-founded a lingerie line called The Lake and Stars, one that would go on to win all sorts of accolades within the New York fashion community and forge partnerships with big names like Kate Spade New York and H&M. It’s also not the first time that she’s found a way to turn food into a conversation piece. As the Times’ Joshua David Stein noted in his December profile of Sweet Saba, Zilberman started a project called WaveCake in 2008—after Norman Lear’s 1981 TV movie, “The Wave”—that had her making provocative cakes for a wide variety of clients. There was the six-foot replica of a Dan Flavin light sculpture that she made for a 2009 retrospective of his work, and a disturbingly realistic cake of a fetus with an iPod that she made for a baby shower that same year. “When I baked it, the cherries overflowed,” she told Stein. “It looked like a surgical procedure. People online were very upset, but it was exactly what the customer asked for.”
Now, of course, she’s onto something a bit less edgy, but there’s still a detectable element of provocation to it. “I think a lot of the time, when you find people who are doing anything along the lines of what I’m doing, they’re considering it more performative,” she says. “I’m not really part of that equation. If you buy a piece of candy, you don’t get me with it—it’s not really like that. I’m also not elevating it to the level of gallery work. I’m not trying to say that this is a performance, or that this is so precious that it needs to be in a white box.” Perhaps not. But don’t be surprised if people end up putting it in one all the same. These are, after all, works of art.