Candy-jade jewelry, edible mixtapes, a botanical garden of sparkling sugar: these are among Maayan Zilberman’s handcrafted delights. The New York-based artist and confectioner grew up in a kosher household and studied sculpture at the School of Visual Arts. After recognizing sugar’s similarity to glass, she created her first sculpture out of the sweet stuff: a gold-encrusted Rolex, inspired by her family’s tradition of trading personal items for the Jewish New Year.
Since founding Sweet Saba, her a candy-for-grownups company, in 2015, Zilberman has spent the holidays working round the clock to complete commissions for the likes of luxury fashion houses and HBO. This season, she’s also moving into a 600-square-foot studio in Dumbo to focus on her non-edible art, which has been exhibited at galleries such as Palevsky and the Something Machine, as well as institutions including the Whitney and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.
Between it all, she spoke with Artnet News about everything holiday-related, from the gifting etiquette rule she likes to break to the sweet, sculptural recipe she likes to make.
How do you like to spend this time of year? Do you typically travel or relax at home?
I’ve never understood the allure of booking a holiday during the busiest time of year. I like to look back at all my sketches and notes from the past 12 months and see where I want to focus next, and maybe find plans I’d made that didn’t come to fruition. The holidays are a quiet time for me to go deeper into old ideas and let them marinate.
Now that I have a young daughter, I like to book city adventures with her and be spontaneous. She loves the fishmongers at the Tin Building at the Seaport, cannoli taste tests in Little Italy, and the dinosaur room at the American Museum of Natural History.
How did sweets play into your holidays growing up?
The fall was always a big holiday time because of Rosh Hashanah and the Jewish New Year. Winter holidays were filled with Chanukah sweets like jelly donuts and chocolate coins, but I was more interested in the menorah and the miracle of the oil. The mythology of these biblical stories mystified me; I was fascinated by the transformation of material, the promise of one element giving birth to another. It’s what inspired my interest in baking, which turned into an interest in sugar art and its inevitable deterioration.
One of our New Year traditions in a family full of women with idiosyncratic personal style was to trade outfits, makeup, jewelry, and trinkets. It felt like receiving something new, but with sentiment, with history.
I’ve since begun making sugar versions of some of these items, and when we have people over for holidays I have each guest leave with a unique edible, ephemeral object. What’s leftover I like to melt down in a big pot after the New Year and cast as one singular sculpture, a recreation of the story, one of my favorite Biblical allegories.
Do you enjoy entertaining?
People assume that if you enjoy entertaining, you must be extroverted or good with groups. I’m neither, but I love to host parties and dream up new experiences, environments, and parting gifts.
Nowadays, I host smaller gatherings and often center them around a creative activity at my home. I choose a simple non-art project like denim decorating, menorah building, or custom-scent creation, where each guest brings something and I have a materials station set up with a food buffet off to the side. One year, I got Popeyes chicken and biscuits for 25 and made a mountain of it on a cool porcelain pedestal with ornate gold-leafed flowers.
The focus of these gatherings is sitting together, making something we don’t already make in our studios, and sharing space. I don’t care about a perfect menu—that’s not what guests remember.
Any tips for hosting a holiday gathering?
My top piece of advice is to prioritize your guests and not make it a Me Show. Know some basic information about each of your guests. I will ask mutual friends if there is anything I should know about since we last got together or just deep creep their Instagram.
When it comes to the party part, focus on one element, then add something to it. Two of my best holiday gatherings were themed “Spaghetti and Dancing” and “Tree Trimming and Vampires.” The unexpected is what breaks the ice and gets people laughing, inspired, and taking home memories (and in some cases, new lovers).
Is there a sweet recipe that you like to make this time of year?
I love an Edible Arrangement crossed with a Chihuly sculpture, so for a sweet New Year centerpiece, I’ll coat fresh fruits in hard candy (like you would a candy apple) and make an arrangement that looks part 1967 prop art, part Chinese Night Market dessert. Mixing references each year makes for a unique interaction with guests.
If doing this with kids, please supervise!
by Sweet Saba:
Assorted fruits: Strawberries, star fruit, grapes, apple slices, kumquats (any you like the look of, not too juicy)
Base: Cantaloupe, honeydew, or pomelo (cut it in half and lay it face-down)
Arrange fruit on clear swizzle sticks; put it aside until the sugar coating is cooked.
2 cups cane sugar
⅔ cup glucose (or light corn syrup)
¾ cup filtered water at room temperature
Combine all in a very clean medium saucepan. Using a pastry brush, wash the side of the pan with water. Boil to 300 degrees (without stirring).
Remove from heat and wait for the bubbles to settle. Add a few drops of preferred flavor oil (LorAnn makes good ones for home use). Add a few drops of gel food coloring.
Dip fruit on sticks into the candy coating while it’s hot and liquid-y, then lay flat to set on a nonstick cookie sheet. If coating hard-to-reach fruits, spoon the mixture onto the desired area.
Leave to harden for about 10 minutes, then arrange the candy fruit kabobs as you would a floral arrangement, piercing the base with the sticks.
Keep in a cool, dry environment until ready to serve (not in the fridge—that’s a humidity box).
For extra vibe, wrap the base in neon cellophane or dust the edges of the fruits with edible glitter.
When you’re the guest, do you ever create sweet gifts for your hosts?
I love to surprise hosts with a candy replica of a memento from a time we’ve shared, for example, a theater ticket, a cocktail ring I’ve borrowed (and made a mold of before returning), or a goblet I broke last time I was over. I’ll usually wrap it in a Lucite box, seal it with Mylar tape, and add a little note on the label. Delighting a host with an intimate memory is a nice way of putting them at ease when you arrive.
What are your decorating tips for holiday parties and the season overall?
Instead of traditional, commercialized holiday decor, I prefer the state of mind—the feeling you get when you’re at once winding up for holiday parties and winding down for some hibernation. Pay attention to lighting, scent, and texture—it’s a time for twinkling, warm and yummy smells, and cozy, glitzy surfaces.
Some years, I just pick one room spray and spritz it around each day. That becomes what I associate with the season and it brings back lovely memories.
Are there any rules of etiquette that you’ve found particularly helpful during the holidays—or even the opposite, completely worth breaking?
If you’re at a holiday gathering, don’t spread gossip—surely you have something more interesting to talk about.
For a rule worth breaking, I think a recycled or re-gifted gift is wonderful, especially when accompanied by a card that explains why it’s perfect for its new recipient. All anyone wants is to be in each other’s thoughts during the holidays.
Sometimes I just paint an old shopping bag with a Van Gogh knock-off and fill it with old stuff I think my friends would like. Even if I’m breaking some rules of decorum, it’s worth a laugh.
What comes to mind when you think of the New Year?
I grew up with the New Year in the fall, but I’ll accept any chance at a fresh start, rebirth, or a new cycle. I’m drawn to spheres and circles, symbols of regeneration and our planet, and I love to think about the lifespan of material and art. I imagine new work, what it might be made of, what shape it will take on, what materials make sense for the earth.
What are you looking forward to in 2023?
I’m looking forward to developing my book and finally sharing some of the projects I’ve had in the works for the last few years. I’ve been making large-scale fountains for public spaces that are based on sci-fi and religious scriptures, where the stories are intertwined and personalized.
I have hope for 2023, even though the state of the world is so troubling. I have hope for women’s reproductive rights, trans rights, the people of Palestine, and the young women in Iran. I also have hope for Ukraine, where my mother’s Jewish family left 120 years ago, that they will survive and find peace in 2023. How can we make art if we don’t make this prayer a priority?