Friday, December 8, 2017

Artistic Evolution: How the Cakeasaurus Picture Book Grew into a Traveling Art Exhibit and More by Marian Short

I first met Cakeasaurus during a latte-fueled afternoon in 2008. I saw an imaginary movie poster with a monster rearing up behind a fully lit birthday cake, upraised claws clutching the "C" and "S" in his name. The caption warned: "No Cake is Safe."

Next, I saw the same monster, leaning against a wall, arms folded; (again) multiple lit birthday candles dangled from his mouth. While the first monster seemed to rule through (confectionary) terror, in his second guise he was smug, a little sassy -- an oddly appealing hooligan. Having a ridiculous sweet tooth myself, I contemplated the potential ramifications of a town struck by widespread cake thievery.

I drank more coffee and jotted down the first draft of a picture book about a town beset by a cake-stealing monster, a pivotal kitchen showdown, and brave child with impressive kitchen skills.

I had already been printmaking for several years and selling prints through local stores, Etsy, and alternative craft fairs, so the ideas of
A.) exploring the Cakeasaurus story by making woodblock prints, and
B.) selling prints of page designs as I went along arose pretty quickly.
Thus, The Cakeasaurus Picture Book Project was born.
An “intro” sign for craft fairs
Now, my savvy readers, I imagine you nodding: “Ohhh, you did a subscription service? Crowd-funded it and sent a new page every x months?” To whom, I say: “Where were you in 2008?” Alas, no. While I wrote the backbone of this picture book quickly, I tweaked many facets over time; and some pages of the story attained clarity before others. I sketched, drew, and carved out of order, around the edges of a full time job and changing life conditions. For a long time when I sat at my dinner table, I faced a wall of taped-up unfinished drawings, which taunted/inspired me, depending on mood.

Gradually, I carved my woodblocks and the number of undrawn pages dwindled. About halfway through -- 15 pages more to design, carve and print! -- impending motherhood galvanized me. First it was a race against flagging energy and a belly that literally came between me and my carving. After my daughter’s birth, it became a race to nail down as much as I could before she learned to walk…

…And I won! Or something like that. I succeeded in carving woodblocks for every page of the book, hundreds of Cakeasauri prints decorate walls around the world, and I got the satisfaction of seeing my whole project laid out as a rollicking exhibit with almost 50 pieces.

This project was quite a journey -- not bad for something that started with doodles scribbled in a cafĂ©. And this is something that I try to remind myself, when I feel lackluster, or cowed by an unwieldy idea. This was most definitely unwieldy – but still worthy. By taking creative “meandering” time, and by breaking its development down into stages, it took me to unexpected places.

Will it find a publisher in traditional book form? Unclear. But what grew clear early on was that different aspects of this project demanded different things from the story. A well defined graphic may sell well on its own, but cause a part of the overall tale to drag; likewise, pages necessary to the story may not lure in the casual consumer; and an ample gallery may inspire you to grow and rethink images previously deemed “done.”

 Woodblock print, with minor digital alterations
A strong seller from the series!...but needs tweaking to fit smoothly into the book
Woodblock print (L); Book version (R), with additional tree, star carvings; digital modifications

Woodblock print (L); Expanded block print with additional carving (R), for exhibit space

One of three process plaques I made for the exhibit 

“Cakeasaurus: Scenes from a Picture Book” was first exhibited through the University of Michigan Hospital’s “Gifts of Art” program (March - June 2017), and a pared down version just closed at the Dexter District Library (August – October 2017). You still have a chance to visit the full exhibit, at the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location (multipurpose room, December 1st – January 10th 2018).

What’s next?

Fledgling picture book concepts. The front-running story has a strong plot, but needs a different visual language than this one. Bright, Splashy, and Energetic! I have imagined picture fragments for most pages, but I haven’t seen the faces of the characters yet.

A greater focus on card line development. I have also been selling small batch cards for some time, cards eccentric sometimes problematic – I periodically task myself with creating occasion specific cards like “Thanks!” or “Congratulations!” but what usually happens is an image of a badger who loves kipper snacks. I’m still working on it.

Flying squirrels, elephants, a toddler who negotiates ABOUT EVERYTHING.

Marian Short is a Michigan-based artist and writer, who began printmaking in 1999. Her artwork has been exhibited across the country. Marian originally hails from the suburbs of Philadelphia, where she thrived in an art-filled house (painter/seamstress/calligraphist mother, photographer father and sister); she moved to the mitten in 1994. 

Learn more:

Marian will be selling prints at the Tiny Expo at the downtown library, this Saturday December 9th, one level above the exhibit.

Many SCBWI-MI members will be signing and selling books and artwork at events this weekend -check out the Merry Mitten bookstore events, the Orion Township Library Author Fair, and the Anton Art Center Picture Book Exhibit. Know of another event? Let us know in the comments below and on the SCBWI-MI Facebook page.


  1. Simply wonderful--creative and brimming with lovely images plus some excellent words of wisdom: "And this is something that I try to remind myself, when I feel lackluster, or cowed by an unwieldy idea. This was most definitely unwieldy – but still worthy." Thank you for sharing!!

    1. Thank you, Erin! The past couple weeks brought another unwieldy-but-hopefully-worthy mini-project.

  2. This is gorgeous. You'll get me out in the snow today to come see it in person!

    1. Thanks a lot, Sondra! Hope you had fun at the exhibit -- or can get to it after the New Year -- I, myself have been snowbound the past couple days...

  3. So wish I was closer to see this! Thank you for introducing Marian's amazing work to us.

  4. Wish I could see these in person--Marian, great fabulous work! Such fun images and I love the hand-lettered text. More more more!

    1. Thank you, thank you for the encouragement!