University of Mississippi

From Sculptor to Teacher to Sugar Diva

Cory Lewis, adjunct professor of art at Ole Miss and Sugar Diva of Oxford, talks life, adventure, and business

ARTICLE | JUNE 19, 2012 – 2:39PM | BY EVERETT BEXLEY

Photo Courtesy Cory Lewis

Call her what you want – artist, professor, mother, wedding cake-maker, conversationalist – the list goes on and on; yet one thing remains certain: Ole Miss faculty member and Oxonian Cory Lewis is not a woman who likes to sit still.“Change is the one thing we can all count on in life,” she said. “Whether we go with it or not is our decision.”

And go with it she has. Lewis, a Louisville, Ky., native, has lived in New York, California, Italy and Key West and has been in and out of Oxford since 1980. In the ‘60s, she travelled the country in a psychedelic-painted Volkswagen bus and met Jimi Hendrix.

“It was an epic time – revolution on all fronts,” Lewis said. “We did not know the meaning of ‘you can’t do that.’”

Apparently, that attitude stuck with her. In 1997, she stopped working as a professional sculptor and moved from Oxford to New York City to study the culinary arts.

“My first day as a culinary student (at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York) was my 50th birthday,” Lewis said. “It was kind of this cosmic thing, like a crescendo of multiple forces. It was huge for me. I had gone from living in a small town to one of the largest cities in the world.

“I never thought I’d be recreating myself at that age, but there I was, sort of like Madonna,” she said with a laugh.

Lewis came back to Oxford in 2003 and started teaching as an adjunct professor for The University of Mississippi’s Art Department and eventually opened her own business, Cakes by Cory. As a teacher, she said she expects her students to gain an understanding of themselves, as well as the subject.

“I want my students to learn to not be afraid. Question yourself. Take risks. Own your own voice and creativity,” Lewis said. “For many students, this is the first time in their lives where they can ask themselves who they want to be. They are no longer living at home with their parents. It can feel both liberating and frightening.”

Her advice to anyone interested in following a creative passion is simple.

“All I can say is, dive on in,” she said. “The water is fine, for the most part.”

One person who can attest to this is Anne-Marie Varnell, Ole Miss graduate in business marketing and owner of Cicada For Her and Cicada For Him on South Lamar Boulevard. Lewis counts Varnell as a close friend and creative inspiration.

“One of the attractions between Anne-Marie and me is her strong eye for fashion,” Lewis said. “She does outside of the classroom what I do in it. She has inspired my work greatly.”

The two women said they have known each other for years. Lewis’ son, Josh, was friends with Varnell at Ole Miss, and her daughter, Katie, worked at Cicada while she was in high school. When Varnell married local artist Bradley Gordon, Lewis made their wedding cake.

“I have never seen anyone else who has such a talent and great understanding of fashion and design,” Varnell said of Lewis. “I can not believe the cakes that she can create out of sugar and flour. I have seen her make a barbecue grill with corn and shrimp on it, a towering skyscraper a groom designed and built in Dubai and, of course, all the bridal cakes.”

These cakes often take up to six weeks to make and may include hundreds of edible flowers that Lewis makes by hand. In the wedding industry, cake-makers like Lewis are known by one name: “Sugar Divas,” people who dedicate huge amounts of time to the craft and produce one-of-a-kind works of edible art.

“It’s hard work,” Lewis said. “The cakes weigh a ton, not to mention you are completely responsible for interpreting someone else’s vision.”

Those who know her said Lewis’ personality is just as big as her cakes.

“Cory is the Zsa Zsa Gabor of Oxford,” said friend and fellow Oxonian Ron Shapiro, who used to own one of Lewis’ favorite local hangouts, The Hoka. “There’s nothing phony about her. We grew up with the idea that if you believed in the ‘60s, you never got out of it. She’s got that flair about her. She’s like a piece of art herself.”

While Lewis’ interests have developed and changed over the years, she said there is still one common denominator she can not ignore: Oxford.

“This town will always be the place I come back to,” Lewis said. “This is the last chapter of my life here.”

She may want to be careful making such a statement. If the past serves as any indicator, the life of Cory Lewis has hidden chapters around every corner.

“Well, I have been thinking about spending some time in a third-world country,” she said. “South America actually sounds really interesting right now.”