By Jason O'Boyd, Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2012 —
Where do you begin when trying to describe who Nancy Jo Fox is?
You could start with her multiple degrees in design, including ones from Duke and New York universities. That led to a long career as a teacher at the New York School of Interior Design.
You also might be able to start with her extensive work with the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City, which involved extensive sessions of interior design of many varieties.
Or how about one of her proudest accomplishments: the book “Liberties with Liberty,” which chronicles the fascinating history of the Statue of Liberty through folk art. Published and released on July 1, 1986, the book became a national success and led to a traveling exhibit of items collected for the book from all over the country. A copy is also on display at the Statue of Liberty.
It also led to a poster series that was exhibited in the Empire State Building and was distributed to every governor along with 166 American Embassies worldwide at the time. That series still frequents museums, with the latest exhibit happening about a year ago at The Bay School Community Arts Center in Mathews, Va.
But her greatest treasures can be found when you take a stroll through her house and admire her unique collection of antique toys. And while you might not expect that from a lady of such sophistication, talent and accomplishment, it’s something she treasures almost as much as her many achievements.
“Collecting is a multi-faceted joy,” Fox said.
“The hunt for that special something, whether a toy or a doll, takes you to various places where you meet interesting people who share their knowledge. It is constant learning about the creations of humankind, a side door to history.”
Fox developed a love for the toys as a child. She grew up in Raleigh and went with her parents when they would go hunting for antiques and other unique items. She moved with her parents to Albemarle around 1948 after graduating from Ravenscroft Episcopal School, now called Ravenscroft School in Raleigh.
After getting her degree at Duke, she moved to New York where her career took off. It’s also where her passion for antique toys blossomed.
“Toys reflect everything, our culture, our religion, the inventions, politics,” Fox said.
“Just look at the satire cartoons … that’s artwork, too. Toys that are made affect the time they are in. I think they are charming. You learn a lot by playing with toys.”
Fox would stay busy during the week with her jobs, school and later with her development of the book. But she always found time to go hunting for the unique toys that adorn her house today, making trips to Connecticut, upstate New York, Pennsylvania and as far as Maine while she lived in New York. Her work even took her to places such as London, Paris, Amsterdam and Italy, where she also found items that captivated her attention.
“Going to work was a joy,” Fox said.
“I couldn’t wait to go to work. I taught five classes of advanced color, I lectured about American folk art and I ran a 24-credit program.
“I think (today’s children) miss a lot by learning about the past. It’s very exciting. They had iron trains, little boys got to play with iron trains. A hundred years before that, there was not such a thing.
“But I don’t want anything that’s not unique. That’s my weakness or strength. That’s what appeals to me about these cloth dolls. Loving hands but they are a one-of-a-kind.
“They say the only path between life and death is love, and they are made with love for their families or whatever.”
Fox said she “was gaga” about the book being published and the traveling exhibit that followed. She was the focus on many television and newspaper interviews including appearances on German and Japanese television. But she had never even been to the Statue of Liberty until her mother visited and encouraged her to come along.
“I was looking around and I saw a man crying,” Fox said.
“I had never seen that in my life. People who had made it to this country and finally they got to be close to (the Statue of Liberty).
“I knew then this hunk of metal was more than something to look at. They crossed over, they fled, some of them were lucky to get here before World War I and II. I never dreamed I’d write a book about that. It’s a dazzling story.”
Fox later moved back to Albemarle to care for her ailing mother until she died. But her love for antique toys and interior design never wavered. She also helped Roger Martin with the interior design of his gallery that’s currently in downtown Albemarle. In addition, she recently became a member of the board of directors at the Spencer Doll and Toy Museum, which opened in July across from the North Carolina Transportation Museum. Her collection of Pinocchio dolls and marionettes was one of the first displays at the museum.
“Nancy Jo Fox is definitely a visionary,” said Beth Nance, co-owner of the museum.
“Regarding the museum, she has definitely been invaluable with design and her ideas and support. She’s been a real supporter of the museum as far as loaning wonderful things of her collection, things that other people might not see otherwise.
“Honest to goodness, she is such a neat person and has an eye for design. You can recognize she’s a visionary. She just has had an amazing career, and we are blessed to have her on our board of directors. Her input is just invaluable.”
“I have had the pleasure of Nancy Jo Fox for approximately 17 years,” Martin said.
“She is a good friend but also one of my favorite teachers. I consider my time spent with Miss Fox my graduate studies in color, design and art history.
“I was very fortunate to have Jo’s guidance on my gallery in downtown Albemarle. Her talents turned the interior space into one that could hold its own in New York.
“Jo is the consummate collector, she knows antiques. Jo saves lost objects and keeps them safe for the next generation of collectors.”