That Time A Wyoming House Was Covered In 6 Tons Of Pepper Jack Cheese

For a brief few weeks in October 2001, Powell, Wyoming, became a national curiosity when an international artist covered an abandoned house there — every inch outside and in — with more than 6 tons of government surplus pepper jack cheese.

AR
Andrew Rossi

February 17, 202410 min read

An abandoned house in Powell, Wyoming, was covered in nearly 13,000 pounds of pepper jack cheese by artist Cosimo Cavallero in October 2001.
An abandoned house in Powell, Wyoming, was covered in nearly 13,000 pounds of pepper jack cheese by artist Cosimo Cavallero in October 2001. (Courtesy Cosimo Cavallaro)

Many artists say their work is not meant to be seen, but experienced. For two months in 2001, Powell, Wyoming, residents experienced the overwhelming smell of art.

For two months, the quiet serenity of Powell was shredded by the vision of an avant-garde artist who turned an abandoned Wyoming home into one that would make the Muensters blush with its eccentricity.

Cosimo Cavallaro is an Italian Canadian artist who’s built a career out of “sculpting with perishables.”

“I don’t see it as a career,” he told Cowboy State Daily about his art. “To me, it’s been my life.”

While he continues making more traditional art pieces, “sculpting with perishables” has become Cavallaro’s trademark.

He’s covered beds with sliced ham and chairs with candy, but Cavallaro’s most common perishable medium is cheese.

It started modestly enough in 1998 when he covered a chair with cheese for an art exhibition in New York City. In 1999, he covered an entire room at The Washington Jefferson Hotel in NYC with Swiss cheese.

But Cavallaro had a more ambitious project in mind. He decided to “trust the voice in (his) heart” and pursue his grandest artistic cheese-centric vision. And he knew where he needed to go to accomplish it.

“I was looking to go deeper into the process of covering things using cheese, and to follow a voice that played in my mind, which kept saying Wyoming,” he said. “Then it came to me that there would be a house there that I could cover in cheese.”

The result put tiny Powell in the international spotlight and the house Cavallaro covered — inside and out — with more than 6 tons of cheese. Government-surplus pepper jack, because the type of cheese matters.

  • Artis Cosimo Cavallaro said he expected Powell town officials to turn him down for his unusual request, but was pleasantly surprised when they said, sure, cover a house in cheese.
    Artis Cosimo Cavallaro said he expected Powell town officials to turn him down for his unusual request, but was pleasantly surprised when they said, sure, cover a house in cheese. (Courtesy Cosimo Cavallaro)
  • Most accounts of those who went inside the Powell Cheese House say the smell was so bad they couldn't spend more than a few moments in it, as every inch was covered with melted government surplus pepper jack.
    Most accounts of those who went inside the Powell Cheese House say the smell was so bad they couldn't spend more than a few moments in it, as every inch was covered with melted government surplus pepper jack. (Courtesy Cosimo Cavallaro)
  • Most accounts of those who went inside the Powell Cheese House say the smell was so bad they couldn't spend more than a few moments in it, as every inch was covered with melted government surplus pepper jack.
    Most accounts of those who went inside the Powell Cheese House say the smell was so bad they couldn't spend more than a few moments in it, as every inch was covered with melted government surplus pepper jack. (Courtesy Cosimo Cavallaro)
  • Most accounts of those who went inside the Powell Cheese House say the smell was so bad they couldn't spend more than a few moments in it, as every inch was covered with melted government surplus pepper jack.
    Most accounts of those who went inside the Powell Cheese House say the smell was so bad they couldn't spend more than a few moments in it, as every inch was covered with melted government surplus pepper jack. (Courtesy Cosimo Cavallaro)
  • Most accounts of those who went inside the Powell Cheese House say the smell was so bad they couldn't spend more than a few moments in it, as every inch was covered with melted government surplus pepper jack.
    Most accounts of those who went inside the Powell Cheese House say the smell was so bad they couldn't spend more than a few moments in it, as every inch was covered with melted government surplus pepper jack. (Courtesy Cosimo Cavallaro)
  • Most accounts of those who went inside the Powell Cheese House say the smell was so bad they couldn't spend more than a few moments in it, as every inch was covered with melted government surplus pepper jack.
    Most accounts of those who went inside the Powell Cheese House say the smell was so bad they couldn't spend more than a few moments in it, as every inch was covered with melted government surplus pepper jack. (Courtesy Cosimo Cavallaro)

The Big Cheese

To cover a house with cheese, Cavallaro first had to find a house. Having already selected Wyoming for his pungent piece, he started making calls around the Cowboy State looking for a home sweet home that would soon become a home smelly home.

“I started to look for contractors that had or knew of a house that was going to be demolished,” he said. “l then called the mayor of Powell, and I told him what I wanted to do with the house in question.”

That mayor was James Milburn, who served two terms from 1997 to 2005.

Cavallaro said he braced himself for rejection after explaining his artistic vision to Mayor Milburn.

“There was a pause,” he said. “I thought he had hung up the phone, which always happened, just before I heard a ‘yes.’ The timing could not have been better. He was retiring, and he couldn’t think of a better way to exit his office of mayor.”

Milburn called Sharon Earhart, director of the Powell Chamber of Commerce at the time, to help Cavallaro realize his vision. Earhart eagerly accepted the cheesy challenge.

“When I was hired, my board asked me to plan activities, events and things that would bring people to town,” Earhart said. “When that one happened at our doorstep, it was like, ‘Well, this sounds like a good idea.’ So, we went with it.”

With the mayor and the Powell City Council’s support, Cavallaro found a soon-to-be-demolished house on North Street that was perfect. The small, single-story house would soon be covered with nearly 13,000 pounds of cheese.

The medium for Cavallaro’s creation was government-surplus pepper jack — and a lot of it.

Then in October 2001, he set to work covering the Powell home.

Along with all the cheese, he said he needed some other equipment to make it happen, like “a large container to melt the cheese and pumps to pump it out.”

He credits much of his success to the late Jeff McCoy, a Powell resident and unorthodox ally who helped manage the logistics of Cavallaro’s vision.

“Without the help of Jeff, it could not have happened,” he said. “Jeff had to get his church community to accept it, and his son, Treg, helped convince his father to help me — and God. I was getting closer to God and didn’t know it.”

Pungent Powell

Once the home was smothered in cheese — outside and in — people were invited to step inside and experience it for themselves. The finished effect was a modest American home, with furniture and some personal effects, with a layer of foamy cheese on every inch.

“He had covered the furniture in different parts of the house,” Earhart said. “The inside and the outside. It was just an interesting item to check out.”

Park County Commissioner Scott Mangold took a tour with his family. He recalled a distinctly Western touch Cavallaro included inside the home.

“I was one of many people that went over there to check out cheese house because it had drawn a lot of attention,” he said. “There was a pair of cowboy boots that were covered in cheese that was inside.”

However, the most enduring memory most people have of Cavallaro’s cheese house is the smell. Mangold remembers that more than anything else.

“Once you got inside, the smell was so bad that you had to get out of there,” he said. “I took my young kids there, and they fought to get out of there quickly. That's one of my fond memories of the cheese house: a very short trip to go inside it.”

Earhart didn’t think the smell was that bad, but concedes it was probably best that it happened in the cool autumn weather of October. The stink of summer wouldn’t have been very gouda.

“It wasn't really bad because it was cooler weather,” she said. “Some guy wrote to me and said it was the worst smell he’d ever smelled. I guess it's everybody to their own likes and dislikes.”

  • An abandoned house in Powell, Wyoming, was covered in nearly 13,000 pounds of pepper jack cheese by artist Cosimo Cavallero in October 2001.
    An abandoned house in Powell, Wyoming, was covered in nearly 13,000 pounds of pepper jack cheese by artist Cosimo Cavallero in October 2001. (Courtesy Cosimo Cavallaro)
  • An abandoned house in Powell, Wyoming, was covered in nearly 13,000 pounds of pepper jack cheese by artist Cosimo Cavallero in October 2001.
    An abandoned house in Powell, Wyoming, was covered in nearly 13,000 pounds of pepper jack cheese by artist Cosimo Cavallero in October 2001. (Courtesy Cosimo Cavallaro)

How It Began

Cavallaro worked as a traditional painter and director for television commercials before he had a life-changing experience on the streets of New York City. He said he was “born again” as an artist after an old man entered his painting studio and offered a hands-on critique of his work.

“The man, with a full head of white hair, looks at the painting and then at me and says, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Painting,’ I answer. He clamps his hands around my neck and squeezes, choking me, and says, ‘This is what it’s supposed to do.’ He lets go and exits my studio. I understood perfectly what he meant. I scraped the painting,” Cavallaro said.

Heeding the old man’s artistic advice, Cavallaro covered his naked body with white and black paint and rolled across a canvas. Once he “stopped myself from making it look good,” he found a new perspective for his career.

Powell Gets Cheesy

When there’s a cheese-covered house in your community, you capitalize on it. Earhart promptly did just that.

“We incorporated a Cheese Fest at the same time we do Oktoberfest,” she said. “We had a parade where we crowned the King and Queen of Cheese Fest.”

In its mission to collect and chronicle the strange and unusual, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not visited Powell and included Cheese Fest in its feature on the cheese house. It was one of several national media outlets that came to Powell to cover the cheese-covered house.

Earhart’s cheesy memories are pungently positive, but not everyone shares those fond feelings for the quirky creation. Many asked, “O queso, what’s the point?”

“There were some people that thought it was kind of foolish,” she said. “Some people didn't understand the significance of it. And I possibly didn't either. But we got a little bit of national attention, and so I found that it turned out OK.”

Mangold recalls some community controversy once Powell residents learned more about Cavallaro’s artistic career.

“It was very controversial artwork that he had put together,” he said. “People were just not happy with some of the visuals they got when they saw some of his other artwork.”

The One And Only

The Powell Cheese House remains a one-of-a-kind piece of art. But it only stood briefly.

“It took a lifetime,” Cavallaro said, adding that it only stood for a short time.

The house selected for Cavallaro’s use was already slated for demolition before it was covered in pepper jack, and the locals weren’t sorry to see it go when it was demolished after a few weeks.

“I think the people who lived in that area were glad when they tore the house down,” Mangold said. “It was the smell that caught your attention, not as much the artwork.”

There is nothing in Powell today referencing the brief existence of the cheese house for visitors. That’s a natural consequence of sculpting with perishables. Eventually, they perish.

Earhart has no regrets. She still remembers the moment fondly and always with a cheesy chuckle.

“At Mayor Milburn’s funeral, they asked us if we had any comments we wanted to make,” she said. “I stood up and said how I enjoyed working on (the cheese house) with him. We decided to take a chance on something that turned out pretty good.”

If there was ever a goal in mind by allowing the art project, Earhart thinks they accomplished it. For those weeks, Powell became a national destination for curious cheeseheads.

“People would stop in at the chamber office and ask us to point them in the direction of the cheese house,” she said. “One lady said she liked to take odd vacations. And when you bring people to town, they spend money in your community.”

It remains the cheesiest thing in the careers of everyone associated with it. And if that smell of success has stuck around more than 20 years later, nobody’s complaining about it. Earhart certainly isn’t.

“We went with it,” she said. “And we're glad we did.”

As for Cavallaro, he continues to make a permanent mark on the artistic community with his perishable sculptures. The cheese house was as much an experience for him as it was for Powell, and he doesn’t trouble himself over how well-aged its story has become.

“It’s the only cheese house in the world,” he said. “As for its legacy, only time will tell.”

From the perspective of those who had to briefly live with it, the Powell Cheese House is aging much better as local folklore than it did for those pungent weeks in 2001.

Andrew Rossi can be reached at: ARossi@CowboyStateDaily.com

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Andrew Rossi

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