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Profile: DJ Brown

In the far southwest corner of the panhandle of Oklahoma, just before you cross into New Mexico, is the very tiny town of Felt. “And that’s where I grew up,” beams DJ Brown, “on a farm that wasn’t big enough to be a ranch but we had everything from cattle to chickens and horses to pigs and we grew veggies,” for her family’s self-sufficient lifestyle. As a typically close extended family, DJ was raised between her grandparents and parents, all of them living on the same farm.

She spent most of her childhood days with her grandmother, doing the endless chores required and learning ways that are barely practiced in modern America today, like canning and baking from scratch.

“A lot of what I do, a lot of my recipes, are from my grandmother,” DJ says proudly. Living on a farm meant everyone had to help with everything. They grew wheat, corn, and milo (a grassy wheat grain) to sell, and when harvest time came around, DJ and her brother worked in the fields, driving the farm equipment.

During harvest, her whole family, including aunts and uncles, would come together to spend days and days working. “Everyone would camp out on the farm, harvesting everything in my grandmother’s garden. It was enough food to feed all five families. They’re some of my best memories. I had a million cousins and we all chipped in, some of us would be in the garage shucking corn, others would be in the backyard snapping beans. That’s how I grew up,” DJ remembers fondly.

photo by Lydia Stern
photo by Lydia Stern

When DJ went into high school, farming had become less lucrative financially so her parents decided to pursue careers and her farm family diversified. “Dad became a respiratory therapist and mom became a nurse assistant. My first job outside of the farm was a certified nurse assistant while I was still in high school.” DJ explains that in a small town, you could do or be anything. “Kind of like here in Crested Butte, where everyone does a million different things to make ends meet.”

DJ’s high school graduation class in 1995 consisted of seven students, and the year before there weren’t any graduates at all. She was anxious to get out of small-town life and into a city, any city where half the population wasn’t related to each other or grew up solely within their small population.

“I thought I knew what I wanted to do out of high school, so I enrolled at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.” She had plans to earn her bachelor of science degree in nursing—DJ considered this the easy path since it was what she had been doing, so it felt like a natural progression. However, it didn’t take long before she realized that the nursing path was no longer engaging or challenging to her.

DJ turned to art. “I had always liked art, dabbling in sketching and drawing. My grandmother painted all the time, in oils and on every medium… wood, canvas, paper or anything that she had at her disposal. I feel like I was exposed to art through her. Mom had done a lot of craftwork so I always loved that stuff while I was growing up. I never had the option of taking art in my small school because they didn’t offer it.”

It was a pretty big jump for her when she changed her degree to arts and majored in graphic design in her sophomore year. Although she lost about a year having a different core focus in science and math, she was thrilled after taking her first official art class in college and she realized that it actually helped solidify some of her thought processes. “I’m a big non-conformer, not coloring between the lines, so it was somewhat of a relief to be in that environment on the opposite spectrum of sciences.”

DJ graduated in 2000 with a degree in graphic design and a minor in computer science (a.k.a., MSCS), the latter supplementing her major because she didn’t want to be a starving artist. During college she had worked for Creative Labs in Stillwater as a tech support and it was there that she met her future hubby, Brian Brown. The couple married in 1999 and now have a daughter, Mattie, who is 14 and a son, Connor, who is 10.

After DJ graduated from college in 2000, they moved to Tulsa where she secured a job as a forms designer, creating medical forms, and eventually moved into the supervisor job and then into an IT position. A decade later, in 2010, she left that job for a position in IT at a financial institution.

DJ’s husband, Brian, throughout his childhood was skiing Monarch from Oklahoma and during summers his family would head to Estes Park, so he was already enamored of Colorado. DJ had skied Angel Fire, Red River and Taos in her youth, but never Colorado until after the two married.

They hit the CBMR slopes for the first time in 2000, and DJ excitedly recalls, “I loved it, from the tourist perspective. I loved the terrain and the mountain itself,” and she noted that the other resorts they had been skiing were not what they were looking for. “The feel we got from Crested Butte, just from skiing, was a community feel.”

At that point in her life she was coming around full circle. “We were thinking of starting a family, and a small community atmosphere was enticing to me,” she says of the familiarity of growing up in her own tiny town. Like many who succumb to the Crested Butte magic, they started talking about how they could make their lives work from this somewhat remote town and they started thinking about how to move here. They had never seen a Crested Butte summer but after taking multiple ski vacations here, the growing family bought a house at Meridian Lake up Washington Gulch in February of 2012 and started seriously dreaming about a mountain life for their kids and themselves. By the end of that May, they decided to move up full-time.

DJ could work from home as her employer was a very forward-thinking company as far as resources go. Brian was and still is a computer consultant, running his own company, Slopeside Technologies, after their move to Crested Butte. They came up in July for two weeks to initiate the move, with the wildflowers exploding around them.

DJ smiles broadly and remembers, “Oh my God, it was amazing. I had no idea before that summer. We had always heard people talk about how beautiful it was with all the flowers. It was eye opening and reaffirming that this is really where we were supposed to be. When we left Tulsa it was 115 degrees so to be someplace where we could go out and hike or bike during the day was tremendous. It was good for our kids because the environment here is so much better.

“I felt like everything that I tried to get away from when I was growing up is everything I was trying to get back to. It’s very comparative here to the lifestyle I grew up with, everybody in the community knows everybody. It’s not everyday normal here. That’s what we were looking for, for our kids, having freedoms, being able to ride a bus by themselves, being able to play in the yard without fear. And on top of that you have all of nature around you, all of those outdoor activities that we like to do. It’s a complete package.”

So let’s cut to the cake… DJ tells, “As I was growing up, my mother dabbled in cake decorating before I was born, doing a lot of work for weddings, birthdays and events. As a kid, I never ate a store-bought cake. After my daughter was born in Tulsa, I started doing some cake decorating for fun, just for family and friends. In Oklahoma I either had to rent space or work under another baker, so I didn’t do a lot commercial baking since I didn’t have my own commercial kitchen at that time.

“After we moved here, in the fall I started trying to bake and discovered that I just could not bake,” DJ says of the challenge of altitude baking. “I tried baking the same cake three times and each time it was awful. I thought I’d never bake a cake again,” she laughs, remembering the frustration.

She read online recipes and sought out various instructions trying to figure out the difference. It took her about 10 months before she finally converted all her recipes and the trial and error stage stopped being painful. “A lot of flour and sugar went into the trash,” she grimaced.

With Colorado’s Cottage Foods Act, which states you can operate as a home baker and sell to end consumers, DJ felt it was time to open up her side job business, mostly for fun. She calls her baked creations “A Taste of Cake.”

“Gum paste and fondant work are my specialties,” she says of the art that’s also called sugar work. “I do blown sugar work as well, where you heat up a special kind of sugar and you can make displays, it’s like glass blowing with sugar.”

The only formal training DJ had in cake making was several courses under Nicholas Lodge, who is a world-renowned sugar artist. His background is in botany and his whole intent was to become well versed in that science to rebuild the florals in sugar.

DJ is adept in both blown and handcrafted flowers as well as other decorative cake art. Her cakes depict colorful and even translucent scenes, as though the fairies of confection conjured up fantasy pictograms of underwater scenes, forest animals, flowers and delicate foliage.

As word got around about her tasty creations, DJ started making cakes for birthdays, anniversaries, and novelty events. Clients will email a photo or picture to her and DJ takes joy in figuring out how to create it. “That’s fulfilling for me, the sculpting, the flowers—that’s my favorite part.”

“I’d love to do it as my sole job, however I found that for me, I have to have a balance of my analytical side and the artistic cake side, which is more fun, more of an outlet, and when I get really busy with cake orders, it almost becomes work then. It’s still fun, but not as fun, and it becomes stressful at that point. Eventually, I’ll retire from my day job but I don’t know that I would ever make the cake business something that I use to solely financially support me.”

And the odd part is, she laughs, “I don’t like to eat cake,” and that can be difficult in the cake biz, especially if the baker is at the event they’ve provided the cake for. “I might eat a couple of bites because it’s difficult to explain to people why I won’t eat my own cake… but I don’t eat any cake. Now pie is a whole different ballgame,” she admits with a grin. “I love pie. My family loves cake and they get a ton of it because there are always scraps, so there’s always cake at my house.”

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