For Elizabeth Adams, a cookie is much more than a delicious disk of baked dough. It’s a sweet canvas for her sugar-coated creations.
Adams — better known as her online alter-ego, Arty McGoo — is a full-time professional cookie artist, or, cookier, who shares her baking and decorating expertise with students around the globe. Her dessert designs range from the dainty to the daring.
“I’m usually a hobby hopper,” the Paso Robles resident acknowledged, but once she discovered cookie art, she stuck with it. “There are just so many things that go into it that fulfill that artistic need — painting, sculpting, photography. It hits everything.”
The youngest of six children, Adams said she inherited her creative side from her dad, a retired Atascadero State Hospital employee who loves to paint, and mom, a piano teacher.
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“I always wanted to be a teacher, a mom, an artist — all these things my parents were,” said Adams, who graduated from Atascadero High School in 1996.
She put one of those dreams on hold after she met her husband, John Adams, in a musical theater class at Cuesta College.
The two married in 1998 — Liz was 19 at the time — and started having children a few years later. (Daughter Bailey, now 15, arrived first, followed by a sister, Sage, now 13, and brother, Denver, 11.)
When Denver started kindergarten, “I was like, ‘Whoa, I have some time here. I need to figure out what I want to be when I grow up,’” Liz Adams recalled. Her husband, whose company, The Score, handles sports marketing and promotion for music companies including Warner Bros. Records and Universal Music Group, offered some advice: “Before you just go back to work, you should really figure out what you want to do.”
The answer revealed itself as Adams planned Sage’s seventh birthday party.
“I wanted to make some favors … that were personal but inexpensive, so I made cookies,” she recalled, specifically polka-dotted pink and green goodies. “The people at the party were like, ‘Wow! These taste good and look good.’ ”
Soon friends and family members were clamoring for Adams to make cookies for special occasions. Then friends of friends approached her with orders.
Adams started sharing her creations on Facebook and on her art blog, Arty McGoo. (She picked the blog’s name, inspired by a long-running family joke, as a way to playfully point out that not all art needs to be serious.) She quickly found an online following as well.
Back to school
Although Adams initially thought about starting a bakery, she turned her attention to teaching when she was approached to conduct a course at a baking school in Genoa, Italy, in November 2013. For Adams, who had never traveled outside the United States before, the experience was “very exciting and a little scary,” she recalled with a laugh. “But it was so fun and rewarding.”
“Then I thought,” she said, “‘I should probably do this at home.’ ”
That December, Adams started teaching monthly classes at her suburban home. But, Adams soon realized, traveling to California wasn’t an option for some students.
She needed a way to reach cookie enthusiasts across the globe. McGoo U was born.
Launched in October 2014, McGoo U offers video coursework on a monthly basis to more than 700 subscribers. (They pay $9.99 a month, or $150 for a year’s worth of classes plus access to archived material.) Each month follows a different theme according to the season. February, for instance, focuses on Valentine’s Day.
First, Adams takes students through the process of making at least three different cookies, step by step. (She always starts with a sugar cookie base, but the flavors, colors and shapes of those treats vary widely.) Guest experts chat about their work and share their favorite techniques in video segments called “Mixing It Up” and “Expert Lab,” respectively.
The segment “Smart Cookie” helps students use time and resources better. And “Extra Frosting” finds Adams showing students what to do with their leftover icing.
Finally, she and her pals cut loose in “After School” skits, sketches and music videos.
Adams shoots those segments at a friend’s video production company, Real Media in Overland Park, Kansas.
“We go out and film five months’ worth (of videos) in one session,” she explained. “Everybody says, ‘You live in California. Why are you going to Kansas City?’ But when you rent space you don’t really know the people you’re working with.” And, she added, production costs are much cheaper in the Midwest.
Adams turned a profit six months after launching McGoo U. “The business is creatively rewarding, and it keeps the lights on,” her husband explained, adding that Arty McGoo is able to be profitable thanks in part to the Adams’ partnership with the Real Media production team.
‘Extended learning’ for dessert lovers
According to Liz Adams, who also does live videos via Facebook, McGoo U is not necessarily for beginners, although she welcomes dedicated do-it-yourselfers.
“I see McGoo U as extended learning,” Adams explained. “It’s really for anybody who is interested in the art of the cookie.”
“I feel like every time I decorate a cookie, I’m learning too. It’s always an experiment,” Adams said, which is one of the things that draws her to teaching. “I never like to make the same cookie twice.”
That said, she leans toward a more vintage vibe.
“The aesthetics of the ’50s really draw me,” said the artist, whose alter-ego resembles a perky mid-century housewife. “Arty McGoo is a lot like me but a lot more nice and not scared to meet new people. She’s very outgoing. She wears lipstick,” Adams said with a smile.
When Kim Holmes of Paso Robles heard about McGoo U, she signed up for classes promptly.
“I thought, ‘I can take a cookie decorating class at my house in my pajamas? I like that idea,’ ” Holmes recalled. She and her 12-year-old daughter started their schooling in January 2016.
“We just were immediately hooked,” said Holmes, who has embraced the cookier lifestyle so wholeheartedly that she now works as Adams’ assistant. “First of all, she’s really positive and she’s very patient and she’s detail oriented. She tells you exactly what you need to do.”
Adams’ students — they call themselves McGoobers — are an even mix of baking professionals and casual cookiers. Although there are a couple men among them, the group is “99.5 percent female,” Holmes said with a laugh.
Creating ‘cookie ninjas’
Adams doesn’t limit herself to online instruction, either. When she’s not jetting off to North Carolina or Barcelona, Spain, she’s teaching classes in person closer to home.
Last month, Adams taught a Valentine’s Day-themed cookie decorating workshop at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. She’ll return to Studios on the Park for workshops on Feb. 25, March 18 and April 22 — aimed at beginning, intermediate and advanced cookiers, respectively.
For hardcore cookiers, Arty McGoo offers intensive weekend-long retreats dedicated to decorating — with breaks for eating, sleeping and singing karaoke, of course. The next such get-together, “Party McGoo 3: Hot Tub Time Machine,” will be held in May in Atascadero; it’s being advertised as “basically the best slumber party ever.”
Adams also organizes events in connection to the annual cookie art convention and show Cookie Con, scheduled this year for March 9-11 in Salt Lake City. And she sells decorating tools such as cookie cutters, misters and brushes via her website.
Adams cherishes the cookie-loving community that’s grown up around Arty McGoo and McGoo U.
“People from all over the world can take these classes and really learn,” she said, while connecting with like-minded folks. “These little niche groups … can suddenly find their people, their tribe. It’s amazing when you create the same thing with someone how much that bonds you.”
Adams isn’t sure how her business will evolve — “Since it’s been so organic up to now, I want to keep going in that direction,” she said — but she said her aim will remain the same.
“My goal now is completely empowering the cookier,” Adams said. “It’s really about making them a cookie ninja — having as many skills as they can get.”