Born in Bendigo in 1892, Ola Cohn excelled in art from an early age. She studied at Melbourne's Swinburne Technical College before winning a scholarship to study under acclaimed sculptor Henry Moore at London's Royal College of Art. Cohn exhibited widely in Britain and Europe before returning to Australia, where she established a studio in Collins Street in 1931. Cohn's talent and skills were recognised with an OBE, which was awarded to her in 1965 for 'services rendered in the service of art, especially sculpture'.
In undertaking the Fairies’ Tree, Cohn was inspired by Ivor Innes' Elfin Oak, located in Kensington Gardens, London. Commencing work on the Fairies’ Tree in 1931, Cohn spent three years carving the ancient red gum. She suffered the discomfort of weather extremes, stings by mosquitos and bees—which had made the old tree stump their home—and repeated acts of vandalism on the work.
Cohn worked in a fittingly organic fashion, using the trunk's natural irregularities to inspire her myriad carvings of Australian and European fairies, dwarfs, gnomes, imps, goblins, elves and animals. Upon completion in May 1934, the tree was gifted to the city's children. Cohn says she carved the tree 'mostly for fairies and for those who believe in them'.
In 1977, the trunk was extracted from the ground for chemical treatment and for the removal of rotten wood. Following treatment, it was mounted on a concrete base in an effort to preserve the work. It underwent further restoration work in 1997, and continues to get regular conservation treatment.