NORWALK — Nearly two dozen lighthouses built using everything from gingerbread and cake icing to PVC pipe and Plexiglas are lighting the way for visitors of The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk during the 12th Annual Festival of Lighthouses Contest. One of those lighthouses, “Twinkie, Twinkie, Little Lighthouse,” was the brainchild and handmade construction of Newtown resident Donna Kern Ball. For her third entry in response to the challenge, she crafted a lighthouse predominantly of Twinkies, Ho Hosand other Hostess snack cakes.
The contest is hosting a full complement of 22 lighthouses this year, with entries also coming from residents of cities close to the Aquarium (Norwalk, Stamford, and Bridgeport), but also from as far as Ansonia and Shelton, along with Hartsdale, Merrick, and Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
Judith Bacal, the aquarium’s director of exhibits, noted that nearly half of the lighthouses were made by folks who have entered the contest before. Returnees include last year’s winner, David Bishop of Stamford.
“I think building the lighthouses become addictive,” Ms Bacal said. “It’s fun and creative, but it’s also very competitive.”
The lighthouses were built by local artists looking for a challenge, by friends and families who wanted to work together on a fun project, and by students fulfilling a school assignment. Entries include one made of tin, and one that consists — at least in part — of “gumpaste,” rock candy and the icing material fondant. Four other entries were built by students at The Ursuline School in New Rochelle, for their senior introduction to engineering class.
Through January 20, Aquarium visitors can follow these homemade beacons through the galleries and cast a vote for their favorite. The lighthouse creator whose construction gets the most votes wins $1,500.
The display is included with Aquarium admission.
“What people may not know is that even we on staff at the Aquarium don’t know what the lighthouses look like until they arrive,” said Ms Bacal. “It’s always great fun to see them as they come in.”
Rules are kept to a minimum to allow for maximum creativity. Lighthouses must be 3 to 6 feet tall and have a working light, and may not include animal remains, including shells. Beyond that, it is up to the creators’ imaginations.
Besides the contest’s $1,500 top award, other prizes are $750 for second place, $375 for third, $300 for fourth, $225 for fifth, and $150 for sixth. Winners are announced at an evening reception at the close of the viewing sessions. This year’s winners will be announced on January 23.
Hoping To Win Again
Donna Kern Ball is hoping to win this contest for the second time. Two years ago, she and friend Laura McNamara won the contest’s top prize with “Sugar Cookie Sheffield Island,” a large model of Norwalk’s historic lighthouse, made from homemade cookies, with white frosting, chocolates, and other edible touches.
Last year she and her mother, Marie Kern, collaborated to create “Wooly West Quoddy.” The entry, made largely from crocheted yarn skinned over a form core armature, was the mother-daughter team’s take on a popular lighthouse in Lubec, Maine. The submission included a Playmobil family enjoying a picnic on the lighthouse grounds, and a Playmobil Uncle Sam waving from a platform above a crocheted American flag. The team placed sixth in the 11th annual competition.
After winning the lighthouse contest two years ago, but then placing sixth last year, Ms Ball looked back at what the strengths of her first lighthouse were over the second entry.
“I realized when I won first place two years ago, that kids really responded to candy, cookies, icing, that kind of thing,” Ms Ball said last week. “I knew I wanted to work in goodies again. I thought ‘What’s more fun than Twinkies?’
“I know that they’re not the healthiest of food,” she admitted, “but that’s what Twinkies are all about: knowing what the rules of nutrition are, and just abandoning them sometimes.”
As many probably remember, there was a concern late last year that Twinkies and other favorites would be gone forever after Hostess Brands filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That dark chapter was short-lived however, once two private equity firms struck a $410 million deal with Hostess Brands, ensuring the quick return of Twinkies, as well as Hostess Cupcakes, Donettes, Zingers, Ho Hos and Ding Dongs.
Ms Ball says she was never worried.
“Even thought I had already had my idea and then heard about the bankruptcy, I had a feeling that they weren’t going to go away altogether,” she said. “I found out that Walmart had its own brand of Twinkies, so I thought even if Hostess went out of business, someone would be making Twinkies somewhere.”
Fortunately, she pointed out, Twinkies were never fully extinct.
“They were just on the endangered list for a little while,” she said with a laugh.
She emptied the shelves of two local supermarkets in order to find enough of the processed baked goods for her lighthouse. There was also a substantial purchase of foamcore, so that she could follow, she posted on her blog, “my modus operandi [of] goodies over foamcore armature, glued with royal icing.”
For the construction of “Twinkie, Twinkie, Little Lighthouse,” however, royal icing had to be removed from the recipe. Any trace of grease breaks down the stiff icing that has for two years been her de facto glue.
“I had to design the armature so that the Twinkies could rest, and then be held in place with half of a toothpick,” she said.
Ms Ball relied on toothpicks and thumb tacks, duct tape, artist’s tape, and hot glue to hold her foamcore pieces and baked goods in place. She sought out black foamcore so that it would disappear into the background. The focus was always to be on the baked goods.
A complete step-by-step to designing and constructing all three of the lighthouses Ms Ball has been involved with creating for the Aquarium contest is available on her blog at DonnaKernBall.com. She also includes helpful hints, including one very important one: “Make sure the overall size will fit OUT of your door and INTO your car!”
When it was time to transport the lighthouse from Newtown to South Norwalk in November, travel was unhampered by the major winter storms that delayed her two years ago and made travel difficult last year. When another driver cut too closely in front of Ms Ball’s minivan she had to hit the brakes hard, and the top-heavy plastic jar that serves as the lantern room for “Twinkie, Twinkie, Little Lighthouse” came off. Some minor surgery at the Aquarium, and the lighthouse was back together.
Ms Ball estimates it took her approximately 60 hours over a two-week period to build her 2013 lighthouse. Expenses included about $150 in foamcore, and $200 for the snack cakes.
The cost wasn’t the important part of the project, said the artist (when she isn’t building lighthouses, Donna Kern Ball is an illustrator, artist, children’s book author-illustrator, and the creator of The Kern Alphabet series).
“For me, creativity is the happy, satisfying junction where imagination meets practicality,” she said. “Without the practical follow-through of an idea, imagination is mere flight of fancy. The joy is in the doing.”
Contest Within A Contest
Ms Ball’s “Twinkie, Twinkie, Little Lighthouse” inspired the Maritime Aquarium staff in late November to offer a short Facebook challenge to guess how many calories the creation contains. The prize was a family four-pack of tickets to the Aquarium.
“She delivered it last weekend [and] it got us wondering how many calories are in the lighthouse,” Maritime Aquarium publicist Dave Sigworth said in November. “So we counted up her ‘ingredients’ and did some multiplying of calories.”
One of the Aquarium’s volunteers took the time to count up each Twinkie (482), Ho Ho (190), and Hostess cupcake (58). Some had been cut in half, which was also taken into account. The final tally was a grand total of 97,150 calories.
While the Festival of Lighthouses Contest exhibit runs until late January, the public only had until noon on November 21 to check out Ms Ball’s lighthouse, even if they only looked at photos on the aquarium’s website or Facebook post, and enter a caloric guess online.
Guesses needed to be made on the aquarium’s Facebook page. More than 700 people took a chance.
The first place winner Ann Dunn had guessed 93,347 calories.
Others were a little more creative. Facebook comments included everything from “a zillion” and “at least a million calories in there” to “at least a year’s worth of calories” and “enough to power a city for a month.”
When Ms Dunn did not claim her prize, the Aquarium awarded the four-pack to the contestant with the next-closest guess, Katie Koontz.
The contest, said Mr Sigworth, “had the greatest response of anything we’ve ever done through social media.” In addition to a Facebook post to announce the contest within a contest, the Aquarium sent out a tweet to announce the contest, including a direct tweet to Hostess.
“Hostess loved the Twinkie lighthouse entry,” said Cara Kenefick, associate of social media engagement at The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk. “I tweeted them the photo, which they tweaked and retweeted to their 43,000-plus followers. It was their most [retweeted] post of the day.”
The 12th Annual Festival of Lighthouses Contest will remain on view until January 20.
The aquarium is at 10 North Water Street in Norwalk. It is open daily — including New Year’s Day — from 10 am until 5 pm.
General admission is $19.95 for adults, $17.95 for youths (13-17) & seniors (65+), and $12.95 for children ages 3-12.
For more details about Maritime Aquarium exhibits, IMAX movies and programs, call 203-852-0700 or visit www.maritimeaquarium.org.