Modern botanical artist, horticulturist, owner of Strawberry Fields LLC
As we enter the middle of winter frigid cold air, we all dream a bit about bright colors, floral smells and warm breezes. So why not nestle into that world for a moment?! We had the opportunity to speak with Kellie Cox, a fearless female who launched her own landscape design firm, Strawberry Fields LLC. With a successful first year under her belt she has a strong outlook towards 2021. As a lover of nature, art and design she has devoted her life to creating environments so that people can enjoy the beauties of what our surroundings have to offer. Not just during those warm sunny months but year round!
When asked about her emotional connection to art and design, she spoke of a children’s book titled, “Frederick7” by Leo Lionni. It is about a family of mice who are frantically collecting supplies for the winter...all but one of them, Frederick. When his family asks, “Frederick, why aren’t you helping.” He says, “But I am, I'm collecting the sun rays...I’m collecting words.” When it came time for the family to hibernate, Frederick was there to give them light, read them poetry...get them through the dark times. We all need art, it reminds us that we aren’t alone, and it helps us connect. It helps us validate and recognize emotions and provides comfort.
“I don’t think anyone could have gotten through this pandemic without art. Creativity is so important.”
From a young age Cox opened her eyes to a world of wonder. As her family is filled with artists and plant enthusiasts, there weren’t many dull moments. Growing up, her parents encouraged her to express her creative freedom. Being creatives themselves, they owned and operated a dried plant and flower company. Now, in their retired years, they continue their passions and are actively using their artistic skills in ceramics and music. She recalls always being outdoors, playing in the gardens, and being encouraged to allow her creativity to shine. During high school she worked at a local nursery and fell into even more of a love towards plants. She said, “I had no idea it could be a real profession (haha).” It’s like a dream come true, she could get paid for doing what she loved!
From here, Cox attended the University of Delaware for landscape horticulture and plant science. Not only is it an accredited program, but the campus is immersed by magnificent gardens which attribute to the appeal. The University has their own botanical garden and Longwood Gardens is adjacent, which is a world famous destination. Being engulfed in such an environment influenced her studies. Post college, Cox decided to move to Ithaca, NY...because we all know Ithaca is gorgeous! This small town in Upstate NY is a hub for artists, plant enthusiasts, musicians...It’s totally ‘Artcentric.’ Being an artist with a fresh horticulture degree, Ithaca was an opportune spot to jump start her career. Here, she spent years working at various jobs within the plant industry, embarking on a path to discover her niche.
Not only was she embracing her inner horticulture passions, her art really took flight. At the time, Ithaca had a rising art scene which now has flourished. The city proposed a mural program called 21 Boxes. The basis was for 21 artists to paint 21 electrical boxes at various locations throughout the city. Cox applied and was a chosen artist. At the time, in Ithaca she was one of the first people getting into creating public work. It was amazing to be part of something that had such a positive impact on the city. This particular piece was in ways the gateway for her to do more commissioned and public work. Quickly she became an active muralist.
“It's part of me, being an artist, I can’t not do it.”
She gravitated towards public art. It was a way for her to be part of the community, be immersed in its culture and it is such an opportune way to exhibit. Murals opened a lot of doors for her. Cox takes influence from nature. She has always been fascinated by plants, birds...all animals. Typically her paintings depict floral environments that will make you want to burrow yourself inside the painting. When speaking about her work she reverts back to childhood and talks about feelings of innocence, discovery and dreams; the magical places kids find themselves or the little worlds they create. By working on such a large scale she is able to capture those feelings for adults. The giant plant life she paints makes one feel like you can just walk inside, look up and feel comforted by the towering flowers above you. A sense of peace and serenity.
“Nature is such a gift for artists in broad ranges.”
One of her most widely known pieces is, “Black Eyed Susans,” located in downtown Ithaca. She relates this piece to a darker time in life. “There is no way I could do that mural now, I just don't know how I did it, something deep inside.”
At the time she felt a lot of misery. While in Ithaca, she both married and divorced fairly young. It was a time of heartache, hope and enlightenment. Her approach towards marriage was to put all her energy into her husband and to think of herself as second, it seemed like the right thing to do. It became very apparent that they sought out different lives and with this came pain. Her courage rising out of this time made her so much stronger and in ways she is grateful because she wouldn’t be who she is today had it not happened. It taught her the importance of HER and what matters most in life. It made her become a better and more confident self.
“It's okay to have those feelings and I think it's okay to go through the process of coming to the point of realizing that things need to change. Know that it's okay to do things for yourself, it's okay to put yourself first. There is only one life we have.”
Today, Cox is remarried, in love, happy and a proud mother. Her life has totally resurrected itself from those dark times back in Ithaca. Once Ithaca wasn’t serving her anymore, she moved to DC where she worked at various historic gardens and museums such as the famous Heurich House Museum and the Tudor Place Historic House. Historic gardens can be such a complex undertaking,, as the conservation of them is so crucial to our history and environment. Some of the plants Cox maintained were 200 years old. Preserving those landscapes is so important as it is a part of our cultural heritage.
Through her various jobs in art and horticulture she has now been able to zone in on what she really loves. The horticulture industry is filled with opportunities. Cox says, “There are so many variants you can make your life work with.”
What she loves the most and feels the most challenged with is Landscape Design. She is continually fascinated by plants and the unique environments they can create for one's home. Strawberry Fields focuses on sustainable landscape design. She strives to use all organic practices, eliminating the use of herbicides and pesticides while also using as many native plants as possible. Sustainable practices involve considering how everything works with each other, what’s best for nature. What can achieve a successful, symbiotic garden.
“There is something about doing the work you're passionate about. It creates a peaceful life and a peaceful living.”
She never thought she could start her own business. Taking that leap wasn’t easy. Having been in the industry for so long now, she had the experience to start something on her own. Seeing countless designs from other contractors, she knew she could do something better and bring new innovative ideas to the industry. So why not start her own business?! The pandemic gave her the extra push. With there being so much uncertainty in the world she wanted to take control of her future, put her and her families lives into her own hands. They say you are your own worst enemy. Yes, she found the strength within to finally make the plunge but it wasn’t until after she became a mother did she have the drive to do it.
“Before I was always so timid, I had aspirations...goals. I was driven but not like I think I am now with having her. It was a self confidence boost. I can have a kid, I can do anything.”
Cox attributes much of her courage to her daughter and says she is, “My greatest art piece.”
She now knows that she has the courage to do anything and not only does she want to do it for herself but also for her daughter. Along with Strawberry Fields she continues to freelance her art and works part time at an urban garden center named Ginkgo Gardens, located in Washington D.C., where she has been for over two years now. She also works with the US Botanical Garden on a selection of family art workshops.
There are many future visions for Strawberry Fields. This year she is focusing on developing a small grant for women in horticulture, her goal is to empower women. A program she plans to continually offer.
“One thing I'm trying to do in my business is promote women in horticulture. Because there’s really not many of us.”
Learning from her own experiences while working in such a male dominated industry, she has become actionable to empower women and be a part of the movement. She hopes to create jobs for women and also be a voice in the horticulture community. Be an example for women who want to be in the field.
“Women are amazing and so worth it. The more and more we support each other in this world, we will have more women doing this type of work.”
While the industry is making moves towards gender equality, it is by no means anywhere that it should be. Through her career she has had many tribulations. There have been countless experiences where she has been talked down to or people question her worth based on her gender. One time she went to a client to give a consultation and they said, “Oh your my designer? I wasn’t expecting you to be a woman.” Of course, she walked out of the job. Sadly enough, that response was from another woman. There is a societal conditioning we have that has been ingrained in us from childhood. Men seemingly hold more worth in the system. This is through history and teachings. Through the development of the trade. There is absolutely no reason that she can’t do the same work her superiors have done prior and if she works hard enough, she can do it better. She is a superior!
“The broader change is really happening with women, it's this slow generational thing.”
She shows her customers only dignity and pride. Many of her clients have been women, which some have said they appreciate that she treats them with equal respect and that she listens to their ideas and input. Many have hired male contractors who have belittled them. No matter someone's gender, this shouldn’t be the case, we should be equals. She recalled going to a conference this past year called MANTS, it takes place in Baltimore and is primarily for wholesale nurseries up and down the east coast.
“I was like, literally the only woman there, I mean there were a few others. 1000’s and 1000’s of people and it was a sea of men.”
Her two professions are companions, they are copacetic. With both their subject matters being nature, they fuel each other. The blending of her passions supports a heightened consciousness. Cox says that each job gains inspirations from the other. They are both forms of artistic expression. While working with the public, she pleases people and enhances their living environments. They inspire each other.
All in all, her life is good and she is happy but it hasn’t necessarily been a smooth ride getting there. Both the women in her life and her husband are so supportive. Her relationship with her husband keeps her grounded and gives her inspiration to work hard. She says without his support she doesn’t think she would be as successful as she is.
“He appreciates and supports me to be my own woman and own person. I'm so grateful that I can just be myself and I know a lot of women are not in that place.”
She went on to say how the expectations put on women are insane. To be a full time worker or student, do everything around the home...get your child to appointments, etc. Her and her husband have a 50/50 split effort in raising their daughter. Being in a good partnership both gives him and her the ability to be their own individuals while also successfully creating a family and a happy home environment.
“My sisters, my mom, husband's sisters...his mom, they are certainly all independent and very opinionated. Full of power and energy...and they have their own cycles in life.”
She attributes much of her success from the support of the women in her life. Every woman brings something to her that she can learn from and gain insight from. It is so important for her to have other women to relate to.
“Support the other women in your work and personal life as much as you can.”
Cox is much like Frederick, the mouse. She understands and listens to the desires of her clients, whether it's her painting or design work. Naturally, she gathers their needs for a more suitable and enjoyable life. She creates sustained environments. Even in the dead of winter, she brings much needed light to their homes. It's the small things that really make a difference, that push us through life.
She says, “There is so much we can learn from one another.” Her nurturing demeanor is comforting and she is truly a reflection of her own work. A person full of magic, hopes and ambitions. As she said, her daughter inspires her daily to be a better person, to be the best version of herself. Having this self love and the desire to always be a good example to her will in no doubt, have Cox continue to be a fearless female.
Q + A with Kellie Cox
Q: What are some words of advice for someone interested in horticulture as a career?
A: “If horticulture is something you are interested in and inspired by, I would say keep pushing forward, don't look back and don’t listen to what anyone else has to say. Don't let anyone keep you down.”
Q: What is something you would tell women in general?
A: “Live the best life for yourself and project that on to other people in your life.” “Listening to your instincts, it is so important.”
Q: What are your greatest achievements? (Besides your daughter)
A: Art: Installing a variety of murals - work in a public place for many years to come. Horticulture: Starting own business, because she never thought she could do it.
Q: Who are some of your mentors?
A: “Dr. John Frett and her Mother."
Her main professor at University of Delaware and supervisor at her internship at University of Delaware Botanic Gardens.
Her Mother - For being strong and running a business her own life
Q: Who are some public figures that inspire you?
A: “Gabby Giffords, Kamala Harris and Mallala Yusufzai."
Q: How do you take your coffee?
A: Daily, she drinks it black! She says she is somewhat new to coffee,
“I only started after my divorce.” (Hahaha)
Q: What does coffee mean to you?
Since it's part of her daily ritual she also drinks it when she travels. Her and her husband visited Europe for the honeymoon and much of her fond memories of the trip revolve around coffee.
Q: What does Moxxi mean to you?
A: “Moxxi has this natural strong presence, the feeling of strength of women. It also makes me think of independent women, and their individuality."
Written & Curated By | Krysta Kearney, Moxxi Coffee Co.
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