Alex Casey talks to a Rose Young, a Wellington artist who sculpts teeny-tiny meals.
It began with a tiny hot dog, inspired by a life-sized hot dog, made by a man named Klauss who operates out of the Wellington dump. “He’s just this old German guy who owns a hot dog truck at the dump and just rocks out to Santana all day,” explains Wellington artist Rose Young. “I’m obsessed with him.” The first miniature she ever made was one of Klauss’ replica dogs, sculpted out of polymer clay. Young didn’t realise back then, in 2015, she had also begun to shape herself a new calling as a miniature food artiste and small-scale Instagram sensation.
“It was all kind of an accident, to be quite honest,” says Young. “Nothing in my life has been deliberate.” Forced to stop working as a copywriter due to ongoing health issues in her mid-20s, Young’s other creative outlets became impacted as the prescriptions rolled in. “I was going to write a book, but then I got put on this medication for my migraines which basically made me dyslexic overnight. From then on, I couldn’t really write. I’d already given up on acting, I’d given up on music, but giving up writing was really hard.”
What she did have left was sculpting, a skill honed as a child under the tutelage of her mother, an art teacher. “I saw something online that was really small and I thought to myself, ‘I can totally make that.’ So I did it, then I didn’t think anything of it.” It was that very day that Klauss’ tiny hot dog replica was born into the world, the significance of which didn’t occur to Young until she visited a local psychic who unleashed a gobsmacking prophecy. “She told me, ‘the thing you are making at the moment might be tiny, but it is going to make a big impact’.”
Later that night, she uploaded the tiny hot dog online. Within an hour, she had a call from the NZ Herald asking for an interview. By the end of the week, her Instagram page had 1000 likes – viral for New Zealand. “I look back on it now and I think it’s a terrible hot dog,” says Young, who hasn’t stopped sculpting tiny meals since. The same medication that left her unable to write also ruined her sense of taste, which further spurred her journey through the tiny food kingdom. “All I could eat was popcorn and strawberries for the longest time.”
Over the past three years, Young has miniaturised everything from tiny doughnuts to tiny sausage rolls to tiny roast dinners. Surprisingly, it’s the simpler foods that are the hardest to recreate. “For example, a slice of white bread is way more challenging than asparagus, because it’s so much more obvious if you screw up the texture. Rice is just awful, because I have to roll every single individual grain out and it takes hours.” It takes Young over nine hours to produce half a teaspoon of tiny peas.
“It’s definitely made me realise how patient I am,” says Young. “I suppose I’ve had to be patient my whole life.” She frequently has to take breaks from sculpting due to her health, but finds the overall process to be extremely cathartic. “I also watch a lot of TV, I’ve rewatched Please Like Me about six times. I’ll just rewatch stuff so I can pay enough to attention to what I’m doing while also staying a tiny bit distracted at all times.” What makes the finished product even sweeter is seeing people’s reactions when they open up their tiny portion.
“I love to see people notice the tiny little things that I do. I’m doing it for the people who notice the slightly greasy fish and chip paper – those are my weirdos.” Of all the mini wonders she has sculpted, it’s the fondue set that featured in a recent 1970s-themed exhibition that Young says is her best work. “I had to learn how to solder so I could make the actual fondue stand. That took me ages to figure out, I had to go to Bunnings and buy a whole bunch of wire and washers and things. That’s the thing I am the most proud of, because it was so tricky.”
Working on a commission basis, everything she makes is one a kind, lovingly crafted to a specific and sometimes very personal brief. “One girl I know gets a miniature made for every year that she is with her boyfriend, based on a meal that they ate a lot of that year. Their first year was poached eggs and asparagus.” When Young looks back at her own food timeline, it’s fresh blueberries that immediately come to mind. “I was born on a blueberry farm, so blueberries have always been very important to me. Also mac and cheese. Any kind of comfort food.”
There’s also a downside to working with foodstuffs so small – they are very easy to lose. “I lost a complete rice dish once. I don’t know where it went. It might have fallen out of the window, my dog might have eaten it, I just have no idea.” Young doesn’t let anyone else sit at her work station, for fear they will knock something off, never to be seen again. “The carpet under my desk is covered in miniature peas and sprinkles. You squeeze something too hard and it pings across the room, then it takes me ages to find it again. It’s just part of the business.”
Despite occasionally losing precious grains of miniature rice to the ether, Young has big plans to expand her tiny food universe. “I want to do early noughties café food – like really giant muffins and paninis and bowl lattes.” Her dream exhibition is to shrink the final meals of famous prison inmates, a topic that has long fascinated her. “I always like to ask people what their final meal on death row would be. It always seems like the flasher the person, the more basic the food is.” She once asked a chef, who told her his final meal would be a Grain Wave sandwich.
With all this talk of dinky-sized delicacies, I had to wonder if Young’s penchant for the small had extended to other areas of her life. “Oh yeah, my dog is tiny too,” she tells me.
“I don’t even like her, I’m just staying on brand.”
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