Sue Ann Cox slices a chunk off a block of clay in her home studio near Newark. She uses a decorated roller to imprint the clay with flowers and leaves. Cox then transforms that clay into a fairy home for the mythical folklore creature.
Her business, The Fairy Potter, is the latest chapter for the Newark artist.
“Every 10 years, I’m pivoting to something else,” Cox said.
In the 80s and 90s, Cox ran Wallflower Gift Boutique in Hockessin, where she sold her own art made with dried flowers. After the shop closed in 2010, Cox shifted to working at a furniture store but found herself craving a creative outlet once again.
“Doing artistic things gives me my reason for being,” Cox said.
After a pottery course, Cox threw herself into hand-built clay art. Cox’s work is not functional, like bowls or tea kettles, but instead she focuses on gifts like fairy homes and Christmas ornaments.
“My inspiration and creativity was geared more towards the gift industry,” Cox said.
Fairy houses are small buildings that often contain candles or miniature figurines in them. People often place them in their gardens.
Cox began working with the form after a spark of inspiration struck while making a birdhouse.
“I made the decision that, oh my god, ‘this isn’t a birdhouse; it’s a fairy house,” Cox said.
The traditional Victorian meaning of flowers is an important aspect of Cox’s work. Each fairy house is based on a flower, adding meaning to the work.
For example, hydrangeas represent grace, and cherry blossoms signify strong women. The meanings help Cox guide people into purchasing the right gifts for relatives.
She also creates a lot of seasonal pieces for fall and Christmas.
“I have people who have whole Christmas villages of my pieces underneath their Christmas trees,” Cox said.
Cox’s art is her full-time job, creating some conflict between her business and her artistic sensibilities.
“Artistically, I would like to spend much more time artistically creating pieces,” she said. “But my business mind thinks to myself, I really can’t spend that time.”
All of Cox’s work is painted by hand, allowing her more control over the colors of a piece. She can create up to 15 pieces a day.
Cox has 15 wholesale customers, reaching shops from Massachusetts to Delaware. Along with her own artwork, Cox is the events director for the First State Art Guild.
Cox explained that several cultures in Europe have trolls and fairies in their folklore tradition. In Iceland, there are entire small villages created by humans for fairies.
One distant uncle of Cox’s carved carousel horses and other animals, including rabbits and tigers. When a newspaper asked him where he got his ideas, the uncle said the fairies and trolls in his garden told him what to do.
“This came full circle,” Cox said.
Cox’s favorite part of her work is how it provides joy to people regardless of age, citing a 10-year-old and a 80-year-old who approached her stand in succession to ask for a Christmas gift for a younger sister.
“Little girls aged 4 and 5, up to women in their 80s just love what I do,” Cox said. “I always know when people are interested because they stop, they stare and a smile comes over their face.”
Newark Neighbors is a biweekly column that spotlights everyday Newarkers who have an interesting story. Know somebody who should be featured? Contact reporter Matt Hooke at firstname.lastname@example.org.