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The fairy door at the Selo Shevel Gallery | © bagaball / Flickr
The fairy door at the Selo Shevel Gallery | © bagaball / Flickr

Meet the Man Behind Michigan’s Famous Fairy Doors

Picture of Tim Marklew
Updated: 10 January 2018

It’s been 25 years since the first fairy door was discovered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A seven-inch door was found in the baseboard of a hallway in the home of Jonathan and Kathleen Wright that, when opened, revealed a tiny and intricate staircase leading somewhere out of sight. In subsequent years, several more doors popped up in their home: one in a fireplace and two in the kitchen. Jonathan, an artist and graphic design teacher, investigated the phenomenon and soon decided that the doors must be the work of urban fairies. His research made him an expert on fairies, and the city’s leading fairyologist.

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The fairy door in Jonathan’s fireplace was discovered by his daughters | Courtesy of Jonathan B. Wright

It wasn’t until 2005 though that the fairies spread their wings and found new homes around the city. The first fairy door outside of the Wright home appeared at Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea, soon followed by doors at The Peaceable Kingdom, the Selo Shevel Gallery, and The Ark. Doors have sporadically been discovered ever since, and the doors that remain have become a phenomenon themselves, attracting visitors and coverage from across the globe.

To celebrate a quarter-century of fairies in Ann Arbor, Culture Trip spoke to Jonathan Wright about discovering the doors, the joy and attention they have brought to the city and whether we should expect to find any new doors in the future.

The year 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of your discovery of the first fairy doors in your house. Are you planning anything to mark the occasion?

Not yet. I was distracted by our 30th wedding anniversary and hadn’t even noted this landmark occasion. …ponder…ponder…

Why do you think these doors started popping up around Ann Arbor so many years after you discovered the first ones in your house?

Oh, maybe the fairies were comfortable just living in our house, or were “gearing up” for an invasion. Time is “different” for fairies, so five years may have been a “blink.”

As a fairyologist, how long would you estimate it takes the fairies to build a door or one of their tiny rooms?

Some seem to pop up in an instant. I have been in a place where there was none, and when I look again, there’s a door! I also know that there are folks that wait and wait and wait for fairies to show up. (Again, time is “different” for fairies.)

What do you think makes them choose the locations they do?

“Location, location, location.” That being said, it seems that fairies gravitate to buildings that have some character and some “characters” who are open to the possibility of fairies as cohabitants. Even what goes on in the human building, coffee and baked goods seem quite appealing, as do all the [knickknacks] and gizmos to be found at the FOUND Gallery, for example.

What is it about the town of Ann Arbor that attracts the fairies?

There is a great deal of imagination percolating in Ann Arbor. It could also be that this area was attractive to fairies for the same reason that people gravitated here, before (or perhaps after) Ann Arbor was founded by John Allen and Elisha Walker Rumsey, or when the Wyandot, Ottawa, Ojibwe and/or Potowatomi were in this area. It seems that fairies are simply a group of inquisitive forest fairies or flower fairies that have decided to move in with humans.

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The fairy door at the Selo Shevel Gallery | © bagaball / Flickr

Do you have a favorite door that’s been discovered?

The one in our fireplace surround (the first image) has considerable sentimental appeal and is rather elaborate, from what we can see peeking in the door and window. Downtown, the Peaceable Kingdom also reveals quite an extensive interior, a fairy “store,” which simply mimics a store in its appearance, but the fairies do not keep any regular hours nor do they ever seem to actually sell anything! They’re hoarders!

How do you feel about the joy and magic that the doors have brought to the town?

That is the best part. My endeavors as a fairyologist have not been about financial reward (though that would be wonderful, of course, hee hee); it’s about the spark of imagination! Now and again I get to witness folks (young and old) discovering the doors, and it is very rewarding.

Jonathan B. Wright, certified Fairyologist | Courtesy of Jonathan B. Wright

Jonathan B. Wright, certified Fairyologist | Courtesy of Jonathan B. Wright

Can you tell us a little more about being a fairyologist? What does it entail?

Being a fairyologist requires research into folklore from the past as well as historical, physical evidence and, in my specialization, the study of contemporary evidence and reports. There is a lot of legwork and often crouching or lying down, OOF! My knowledge of architecture, biology and even illustration has been invaluable in piecing together bits of information, which, of course, has led to my book, Who’s Behind the Fairy Doors?

Doors have popped up in other places near Ann Arbor. Have you heard of them popping up anywhere else in the world?

Oh yes! All over the world: Denver, Colorado; Alameda, California; Adelaide, Australia; Dublin, Ireland. Of course, there are fairy doors made BY fairies and fairy doors made FOR fairies—a bit like a bird’s nest vs. a birdhouse.

It’s been a little while since the most recent fairy door appeared in November 2015 at the University of Michigan. Can anyone expect to find a new one soon?

I feel quite certain that there will be more fairy constructions and developments. Soon?… Well, you know about time and fairies!

As of January 2018, there are eight fairy doors and one goblin door in Ann Arbor that the public can visit, while there are others in private residences, schools, Urban Fairies Operations world headquarters, and some seasonal ones. And fairy doors do come and go, so keep your eyes and imagination open.