Pay It Forward: The Birthday Cake Project

Happy New Year! Tyler Russell kicks off 2015 and Carnival Season spotlighting one of the most generous artist projects of the last year.

S. Louise Neal offers a slice of cake At the opening for "Happy Happy Happy!" at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, New Orleans. Photo by Paige Devries.

In a city that finds reason to fete nearly every occasion, S. Louise Neal’s The Birthday Cake Project fits perfectly into the culture of celebration. The Birthday Cake Project saw Neal bake, decorate, and hand deliver one birthday cake to a new person everyday for the month of June. Learning of her offer through fliers, social media, radio programs, and news articles, participants could request a free, custom-made cake for themselves or a loved one.

Each cake was multilayered, hand-frosted, covered with sprinkles, then biked across town by the artist to the gleeful recipient. Despite her prodigious output in the kitchen, Neal is allergic to gluten. From this angle, it’s easier to see how the project was conceptualized as art—the birthday cake as a peculiar sculptural object. Once a year, it is labored over for hours, bejeweled with colored candies and icings, and lit on fire. To complete the strange ritual, a crowd sings a song around it then devours it.

Following the success of the project, Neal’s “HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY!” opened in November at the newly minted Southern Food and Beverage Museum on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. The exhibition chronicled the project through photographs taken of each person who received a cake. The smiling faces in each photo are illuminated by the glow of candles.

At the opening, Neal, whose pink hair mirrored the brightly colored frostings on her cakes, seemed genuinely happy. As people continued to file in, the gathering felt less and less like a stuffy art opening and more, well, like a birthday party. Prior to the event, the artist confided that her birthday was just a few days away and joked that she feared the opening would turn into an impromptu birthday celebration rather than a celebration of the project. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said.

Despite Neal’s demurring, anticipation was in the air as a giant cake was wheeled out. The crowd murmured and stared before local drag performer, Golden Delicious, suddenly popped out of the cake. Ms. Delicious sang a sultry rendition of “Happy Birthday” and everyone applauded. Neal began slicing the cake and, as the audience patiently waited for their individual slice, there was one final piece of the birthday performance. Still standing in the middle of the cake, Golden Delicious began topping each audience member’s cake with a candle. One by one, she whispered the words: Close your eyes. Make a wish. And blow out your candles.

View of "Happy Happy Happy!" at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, New Orleans. Photo by s. Louise Neal.