The Mazemaker

Adrian Fisher
Fisher first sketches out ideas for mazes using a pencil and paper, then translates them into computer graphics and models.

Mazes seem to defy time and age. You’re in a maze — and I’m talking about real ones, not ones you solve on your iPhone — for 10 minutes or two hours; it’s hard to tell. You’re either 8 years old or 45. It all starts to feel the same.

Adrian Fisher has been designing mazes — mirror mazes, hedge mazes, water mazes, you name it — for 36 years. He holds seven Guinness World Records. Continue reading “The Mazemaker”

The Latte Artist

Jessica Bertin
Jessica Bertin, the administrator of Joe Ed classes, subsists on just one or two cups of coffee a day – a shot of espresso here, a sip of cappuccino there, to test quality control.

“Skim milk. The bane of our existence.”

Jessica Bertin sits in the corner of the Joe Coffee store she manages on New York City’s Upper East Side, eyeing the Sunday morning crowd as the sun streams in. Every large latte with skim order makes the baristas cringe — the thinness of nonfat milk makes it nearly impossible to create the store’s crisp signature Rosetta design.

Joe Coffee, a family-owned business that opened in 2003, has several branches across New York City and Philadelphia. Bertin trains baristas and runs Joe’s public education program, which includes a smattering of about a dozen classes — ones focused on espresso and manual brewing ($60 for two hours) to lectures on direct trade versus fair trade. Then there are the full-day barista workshops ($225 for seven hours) and 16-hour one-week courses, which never fail to sell out. But one of Bertin’s most impressive areas of expertise is  latte art — which, for the record, is much harder than it looks.

Continue reading “The Latte Artist”

The Pizza Box Connoisseur

Photo: Michael Berman
“People are surprised I’m not 600 pounds,” laughs Scott Wiener, who runs a pizza company. Photo: Michael Berman

To the average American, a pizza box is a disposable, oily compilation of cardboard, taking up room in the fridge until the last slice is gone. But to Scott Wiener, a pizza box is a work of art. That’s why he holds the Guinness World Record for largest collection of pizza boxes.

Wiener eats, lives, and breathes pizza. During the day, he runs a pizza tour company, taking groups of tourists to 40 different pizzerias around New York City on a yellow school bus. But the job takes a lot of research, he says. “It’s not just waking up, eating pizza, and getting a paycheck.” 

Nearly six years, 1,500 tours and over 25,000 tour guests later, Wiener is planning a traveling art show featuring pizza boxes around the world, from Brooklyn to Austin, Tex., to the rest of the world. Below, he reveals the country that uses the world’s most intelligent pizza box (not America), how to order pizza the right way, and where his love for dough, red sauce, and cheese first began.

Continue reading “The Pizza Box Connoisseur”

Revisiting the LEGO Artist: A Times Square Exhibit

Two years ago, No Joe Schmo featured Nathan Sawaya, a lawyer-turned-LEGO artist who builds life-size sculptures with up to 25,000 LEGO bricks featured at corporate events and museums around the world.

This summer in New York City, Sawaya is the subject of the Discovery Times Square exhibit The Art of the Brick. The exhibit features a slew of Sawaya’s work, from LEGO recreations of famous artwork like the Mona Lisa, Starry Night, and Michelangelo’s David to a Tyrannosaurus Rex (very Night at the Museum-esque) to NYC-specific creations like the Statue of Liberty. Take a look below:

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One of my favorite parts of the exhibit, though, came at the very end. Everyone at the exhibit was encouraged to grab a brick, write  their name on it, and add it to a crowdsourced LEGO creation.

crowdsourced legos

The Art of the Brick runs through January 2014. Adult tickets cost $23.50.

NEXT: Think LEGO building is cool? Here are 10 awesome jobs you wanted as a kid

If you have an idea for a great No Joe Schmo, please submit it on the Suggest a No Joe Schmo page.

The Cardstacker (Who Doesn’t Watch House of Cards)

Bryan Berg's recreation of the Dallas skyline used 1,060 decks of cards.
Bryan Berg’s recreation of the Dallas skyline used 1,060 decks of cards. That’s more than 55,000 playing cards.

“There’s this notion that a house of cards is fragile,” says Bryan Berg, who has perfected the art of stacking cards over some 20 years. In fact, he explains, intricate houses can weigh in at hundreds and hundreds of pounds, and often require leaf blowers to take down. “Fragility is relative, right? I can put a brick building up to a tornado, and then you realize that it’s fragile, too.”

Berg, a Guinness World Record Holder at age 38, maneuvers around his freestanding constructions using ladders or scaffolding. His tallest creation, the Dallas skyline, is more than four times his height, towering at 26 feet – the holder of the Guinness World Record for Tallest House of Cards.

Hotels, television networks, and city governments approach Berg with requests for replicas of existing buildings or objects, like creating the largest casino in the world – the Venetian Macao Resort-Hotel in China – during the Chinese New Year in 2010. It took almost two months and 4,000 decks of cards to construct.

Below, Berg describes his 7- or 8-hour workdays, which he mostly spends in silence (except for crunch time, when he cues up electronica on his iPod) and wearing socks.

Age: 38
Graduated from: Bachelor of Architecture from Iowa State University; Master of Design Studies from Harvard
Based in: New Mexico
Years in the business: About 19
Previous jobs: I worked at my dad’s construction company throughout high school, college, and even after. That was part of what allowed me to get my footing with cardstacking.

I captured my [first] Guinness World Record in 1992 when I was a senior in high school. It was 14 feet and 6 inches tall, much higher than anything I had ever built before. But my first paid project didn’t happen until two years later.

Berg built the Beijing Olympic Village at Langham Place Kowloon, Hong Kong's largest shopping center, in celebration of the Beijing Olympics.
Berg built the Beijing Olympic Village at Langham Place Kowloon, Hong Kong’s largest shopping center, in celebration of the Beijing Olympics.

Did a passion for architecture segue into cardstacking, or vice versa? My interests in the built environment led me to cardstacking, and cardstacking led me into the pursuit of architecture.

When did you realize you could make a living by stacking cards? Well through college – if not, after. I considered every project to be an anomaly. Over time, I realized it was more than a fluke, and I took it more seriously.

Do you use novelty cards? Initially, I used whatever I could get my hands on – the cheap decks from the local grocery store. But that created a problem, since [each card] varied in quality and characteristics. So I partnered with this Belgian company Cartamundi to create cards with the ideal height-to-width ratio. I also worked with them to create a special buildable set, with a patent-pending gadget – it’s essentially a training wheel to learn how to stack cards.

Do you use any gadgets? No. But I’m not placing cards in a random or haphazard way – I design every single arrangement in a geometric and orderly method. But there’s no bending or manipulation of cards.

By nature, your art is impermanent – you can’t exactly transport a house of cards. I’ve only used glue with two projects, and I’m very upfront about them: Once, for the Holiday Inn, I glued together key cards for a life-size hotel recreation. Another time, for the World Series of Poker, I glued together poker chips for a full-scale “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign that hung in the air. Watch the time lapse below:

Your technique: There are two principal ways to stack cards: horizontally and vertically. I use both. I also produce a computer-generated rendering for my clients, but the finer points take a lot of improvisation. The musical analogy is that you’re given the time frame and key signature, but you have to fill in the notes.

The deconstruction process: I don’t get upset about knocking [a project] down, as long as I’ve got some good pictures. It’s part of the process; it doesn’t feel complete until I’ve knocked it down. I usually use a leaf blower.

It really requires that much force? A common question I get is, What if you sneeze while you’re working? People don’t realize that a house of cards is very heavy – hundreds and hundreds of pounds. A sneeze won’t do anything. Any damage while I’m building is isolated; it doesn’t spread because of all the partitions.

Best part of your job: Being able to be artistic and to do what I like.

Most challenging part of your job: When people come to us without a clear vision of what they want, or too hardened of an idea.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Actually stacking the cards takes a pretty small amount of time compared to planning and coordinating with everyone involved. My wife, Kristin, holds up the business end of things.

Berg was commissioned to break his own record at The Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, the largest casino in the world. The project took 44 days, 219,000 cards, and set a new Guinness World Record.
Replicating the Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, the largest casino in the world, took 44 days, 219,000 cards, and set a new Guinness World Record for Largest House of Cards.

How do you navigate around structures that are taller than you are? With ladders or scaffolding. You don’t want to stack yourself into a corner.

Have you dabbled in real bricks and mortar? I’m actually building a real house for myself right now. I’m the general contractor, so I have a crew.

Any interest in Netflix’s House of Cards? I’ve heard about it, but haven’t seen it.

Some structures must be impossible to recreate using cards. Yes, like the Statue of Liberty’s arm or the Golden Gate Bridge or an airliner’s wings. There’s nothing to support it.

Your required reading: Screw It, Let’s Do It by Richard Branson. It’s about how he made his life fortune by going against the advice of his financial advisors.

Your favorite architectural work: The temples at Angkor in Cambodia and the wooden architecture in Japan.

How do you calculate your rates? It’s a day rate that includes any travel costs. A big part of this is learning to suggest a reasonable price that isn’t a rip-off for [the client] or for me. Over time, you learn what something is worth.

Look at the work of others, but realize that sometimes the best ideas might not come from the human element. They might be outside in nature or in some totally unrelated realm of data or experience.

Follow Bryan Berg on, his Facebook page, and at @cardstacker on Twitter.

Next: Meet the SNL cue cards guy, who makes a living with a very different type of cards.

The Sculptor With a Palette of Butter, Chocolate, and Cheese

Jim Victor and Marie Pelton created a life-size chocolate replica of the No. 18 Toyota Camry M&Ms car. Photo:
Jim Victor and Marie Pelton created a life-size chocolate replica of the No. 18 Toyota Camry M&Ms car. Photo:

When it comes to chiseling 1,000 pounds of butter into life-size manatees or molding a Santa from cream cheese and mascarpone, no one does it better than Jim Victor. Just don’t ask him to use meat. That’s gross.

The food sculptures can take Victor and his wife, Marie Pelton, up to a month in their Philadelphia studio, using heavy-duty cutting tools, whittling implements, and cheese graters.

Age: 68
Graduated from: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Based in: Philadelphia, Pa.
Years in the business: 30 or so. I made my first chocolate sculpture in 1982, but didn’t do any again until 1995.

Did you attend art school with the intention of sculpting food?  No. I started out with wood, and did my first chocolate sculptures in the 80s. But didn’t grow serious about food sculpting until the 90s, when I realized a real demand for it. I actually got my first butter-sculpting job through a wanted ad that my brother saw in a local Harrisburg, Pa. newspaper. As a sculptor, your opportunities are few and far between.

Andy Warhol's "Marilyn Monroe" using marshmallows for the Orange County Fair in 2010.
Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe” using marshmallows for the Orange County Fair in 2010.

You work with quite a range of materials, from steel and wood to cheese and vegetables. A lot of the same sensibilities come into play; I have to think about textures and colors. But there’s an added concern with perishables, like fruits and vegetables. You have to create them the day before a show.

Your workspace: We have a regular studio and two temperature-controlled trailers for sculpting on the road. The sides of the trailers are windowed so that people can watch. Many fairs also have butter booth facilities.

How do you prevent the butter and chocolate from melting as you handle it? For butter, temperatures must be below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Chocolate is a little more forgiving — it just needs to be away from the sun and moisture, and below 80 degrees. For cheese, we work with harder ones, like hard cheddar.

Favorite edible medium: Parmesan cheese.

Your toolkit: Lots of clay modeling tools, or wooden tools that I carve myself. For something slippery, like butter, I need a big handle.

This butter manatee appears to be floating, but the seaweed supports the mammal's hefty body mass, explains Victor's wife, Marie.
This butter manatee appears to be floating, but the seaweed supports the mammal’s hefty body mass, explains Victor’s wife, Marie. Victor works mostly with unsalted butter, but salted butter is softer and easier to shape.

Which comes first, the subject or the medium? They’re usually commissions from corporate sponsors that want specific materials. After planning, we make armatures from wood, wire, or steel. That’s the skeletal frame around which the sculpture is built. People think we’re cheating, but you need an understructure to hold up the cheese, or chocolate, or whatever.

Your strangest commission: It was for a politically incorrect-themed party in California. We made Fidel Castro out of fruits and veggies, and Hitler out of cheese.

I didn’t see those on your website. It shocked me so much that I left those off.

Is there any food you won’t use for sculpting? For a long time, I said I wouldn’t work with meat. Then I did, but just a little. I don’t want to work with big quantities of meat — I think that could be really gross.

You’re not grossed out by 1,000 pounds of butter? Not really.

The nature of your job involves a sizable waste of food, considering your sculptures are not for human consumption. We use waste butter from dairy plants that would be thrown away anyway. A lot of our butter is turned into biofuel using digesters on farms or at university campuses to run cars.

Does the same go for cheese? No. We give some of [our cheese sculptures] to a food bank in Texas after a job. But for the most part, our sculptures can’t be eaten because we handle the material too much. We’re not chefs.

Best part of your job: Getting commissions to do work you love.

Mark Ingram, Jr., a running back for the New Orleans Saints, recreated in bread, raisins, cranberries, and chicken salad.
Mark Ingram, Jr., a running back for the New Orleans Saints, recreated in bread, raisins, cranberries, and chicken salad.

Most challenging part of your job: The technical challenges and demands that people and corporations throw at us. For Subway, we recreate heads of NFL stars using sandwich materials. It’s like, how do you make [Washington Redskins quarterback] Robert Griffin III out of chicken salad?

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? How difficult it is, both physically and technically. It involves a great deal of engineering and is very physically demanding. We’re lifting hundreds of pounds of butter. It’s also very long hours. For the past month, in preparation for a chocolate show in New Orleans, we’ve been working 10-hour days, seven days per week.

President Jimmy Carter, plaster, 1974.
President Jimmy Carter, plaster, 1974.

Your work in non-perishables is quite popular as well. Your plaster bust of Jimmy Carter currently resides in the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. That’s a funny story. New York magazine commissioned that bust — they wanted to smash it to pieces and then photograph it for their cover, to symbolize [what everyone thought would be] Carter’s failed negotiations for peace in the Middle East. But it turned out that his deal pulled through. So I wrote a letter to Carter, offering him the head for the museum. He accepted.

Average rate: We charge anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 per day, depending on our work. But we don’t always make that much, once you factor in design, shipping, and hiring people to help.

How do you unwind after a long day carving butter? With a stiff drink.

There are only so many jobs you’ll find in the wanted ads. The most successful people figure out what they want to do and make their own jobs. Opportunities are very fleeting; don’t ignore any of them.

Meet more artists with creative palettes: the dirty car artist, the soap maker, and the pop-up paper engineer.

Unless credited otherwise, all photos courtesy of Find more of his sculptures below:

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