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Living a fairy tale

Chapel Hill artist’s creations inspired by nature

by Jonathan Tuttle



There must be fairies in those woods,” says Vanessa Rumaz Boyd as she looks out the kitchen window of her Chapel Hill home.


A long way from her native Italy, the forested three acres — frogs in the pond, a deer testing a gardener’s patience — nevertheless inspired the project that has driven Boyd, an artist and Web designer, for the past year. Above her, in a hallway overlooking the living room, is her drawing desk, where she first sketches out the dancing figures that she calls FantaFairies.


Considering Boyd’s long history of travel and studying art, she believes it was only a matter of time before fairies made an appearance in her work. According to their mythology, fairies pop up everywhere. In Venetian legend, they live in sinks. And in Chapel Hill, they seem to live in back yards.


A fantasy land

Boyd quickly realized that if fairies can come from anywhere, then they can come to represent places as well. Many of her fairies — presented individually as greeting cards or as framed works of art — are ambassadors for the places she’s seen in her travels: Caroline, the fairy of North Carolina; Ariadne, the fairy of Venice; and Charleston Dream, the fairy of Charleston, S.C., among others.


Her characters not only take on the personalities of the places they represent, but their wild dresses, wings, and hair all contain smaller figures, or secrets, from their respective hometowns. After the viewer is enchanted by Ariadne’s carefree pose, he or she must spend a few careful minutes finding the Phoenix Theater and the Rialto Bridge within the folds of Ariadne’s dress.


Boyd first began sketching Charleston Dream — her first fairy, unaware of what it was or where it was headed — after a trip to Charleston with her husband.


“The fairies snuck up on me,” she says. “I didn’t expect them.”


Her love of ballet, vintage greeting cards and children’s illustrations came together of their own volition to form FantaFairies. On a sailboat in the Caribbean, Boyd discovered the ultimate freedom and relaxation that came from drawing. That’s when she drew Ariadne, the fairy of Venice.


A Venetian tradition

Boyd was raised in Marostica, a medieval village near Venice. A feeling of enchantment appears to be the birthright of everyone who’s lived there. The village contains a Roman fort, two castles and a central square decorated as an enormous chessboard. Every other year, actors put on the story of two knights who fought for the hand of a princess as knights in a game of chess.


Northern Italy, filled with small industries, is believed to be the backbone of the country.


“Everyone in my family is an entrepreneur,” Boyd says.


Her mother owned a fabric store, while her father worked with ceramics.


“I couldn’t escape doing something artistic,” she adds.


Just like her four-year-old daughter Eva, Boyd’s first canvas was her mother’s kitchen wall. She dreamed of restoring old buildings, and when the time came to attend college she chose to study fine art in Venice. For her first job, she worked as an assistant to a painter of trompe l’oeil, detailed images that gave excellent training for her later work.


When Boyd visits Marostica now, she does so as a tourist, noticing details in the nooks and crannies that she’d never noticed before.


“Italians don’t like to move,” she says. “They prefer to be born and die in the same place.”

Boyd just might be the exception to this rule.


A worldly experience

While living in Europe, Boyd met her future husband, Richard, an American who co-authored a book on three-dimensional computer programming that was translated into Italian. The book also happened to be a favorite of Boyd’s stepfather, a programmer himself.


The couple came to North Carolina in 1997, first living in Apex while Richard studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then arriving in town four years ago.


“I consider myself adopted by Chapel Hill,” Boyd says.


Although she struggled at first, Boyd grew to love the Triangle’s sense of community. In Marostica, it’s possible to walk around the square and spend the entire time greeting passing friends. She quickly learned that the same holds true in Chapel Hill.


The town’s cosmopolitan culture also thrilled Boyd, who is sophisticated enough to keep a copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” among her daughter’s picture books. She also discovered an Italian community in Carrboro, purchased strong Italian coffee from Harris Teeter and began attending the annual American Dance Festival in Durham.


Boyd held a few jobs as she got accustomed to her new surroundings, which included launching a catering company inspired by her grandmother’s cooking.


“In Italy, food is how you interact with people,” she says.


Eventually though, she grew less interested in the food and more interested in the design of the menu. Having already learned the ins and outs of software from her stepfather, Boyd created a firm called Pikaboo Design in 2004, a business that’s still growing. The digital realm has proved to be the perfect balance for her drawing and painting.


“Work in technology forces you to have a love of physical art,” she says.


A passion for art

These days, Boyd’s first step is to research the place that her fairy will come to represent, a stage she finds just as edifying as the drawing. She then pencils, inks and watercolors, often working well into the night to fit in all of the little hidden creatures.


At the end of 2008, Boyd decided to sell the fairies as a way to “set them free,” she says. They now can be found at the Raleigh City Museum, Hillsborough Yoga Company, Panzanella in Carrboro and the Kidzu Children’s Museum on Franklin Street downtown. A portion of each fairy’s sales is given to a different charity. The North Carolina fairy, for instance, is dedicated to a micro-loaning program.


Boyd also is working on a book of six fairies to be accompanied by a friend’s poetry.


“There is an audience for everything,” she says.


Happily, her fairies are beginning to find their own, bringing little pieces of the world to North Carolina. 


Jonathan Tuttle is a freelance writer based in Carrboro.