Artist's fantasies earn worldwide fans

June 04, 1995|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

Davidson, N.C. -- Tom Clark's gnomes make you think of fairy tales. They are small, colorful creatures at play and work. They are industrious and humorous and totally born of imagination.

"I often say our little fellas have all our virtues and none of our vices," Mr. Clark says. "They try to see the positive side of things and none of the negatives. They have a sense of humor, but their jokes make themselves -- not their friends -- the object of their fun. They try to live as a friend and companion.

"I know the little people I've made have become parts of other peoples' lives."

They are hand-carved statues depicting friendly and happy little people, and they have found places to rest in curio cases around the world. Many of them are far from their birthplace and the museum created for them in Davidson, N.C., just north of Charlotte.

In fact, Mr. Clark has carried some gnomes to their far-away destinations himself. When he travels, he takes a statue and hides it for someone to find. In his travels, he's left more than a dozen of them hidden around the world. For example, he left a bonnie lass in Scotland. If people find one of these statues, they can call his studio to register it. Mr. Clark will recognize it by its inscription.

The gnomes are the unlikely life's work of a man who initially believed his future was to be a Presbyterian minister and then, for 27 years, a teacher of religion at Davidson College.

"I found I wasn't very good at being a minister," he says. "And while I enjoyed my teaching, I wasn't a real successful teacher, either. I never wrote a book or anything like that. But I was very good at sculpture. It was inside me, burning to be expressed, and I just kept working at it until it finally took over my life."

Mr. Clark is a small man with sharp features -- not unlike his own creations. And when he is dressed for work the 66-year-old looks as much like a scientist or a dentist as he does a sculptor.

The gnomes first came to Mr. Clark one day 25 years ago when he was still an amateur artist. The subjects of a portrait bust he was working on didn't show up on time one day, and Mr. Clark, alone in his studio, filled in the time by creating one of the small forest-dwelling creatures of fantasy.

He placed the finished work on a shelf and forgot about it until a friend, Joe Poteat, dropped by to visit. Noticing the gnome, he borrowed it to show to a business client, a local florist. The florist immediately ordered 100 of the little figures to place in floral arrangements. That was the beginning of what is now Cairn Studios Inc.

A cairn is a Scottish word for "a heap of stones," and when Mr. Clark came back from Scotland, where he had earned a doctorate in New Testament studies from the University of Aberdeen, and decided to build his house out of stone, he decided to name it "The Cairn." When his art studio went up across from it, it became Cairn Studio.

And in the past quarter-century, the studio, about 20 minutes outside Davidson, has become a thriving business.

Mr. Clark does his own creative work in the studio and then takes it to his nearby plant, where more than 100 people work at reproducing his work with molds and castings.

The pieces are then assigned to 300 other artists who are contracted to hand-paint, stain and antique each statue for distribution by more than 100 sales representatives across the country. There are 21 dealers in Maryland.

"It's sort of funny to me to be putting a little piece of clay on top of another little piece of clay and have it wind up being the lifeblood of so many people," says Mr. Clark. "It's a sobering thought. I can't play around. The collectors have bought pieces, realizing they increase in value, so I can't play around with the piece. It's serious sculpture, and I have to move on and create something new."

Little treasures

Gnomes are known to protect great treasures, but in this case the gnomes Mr. Clark creates are the treasures.

"When I'm doing miniature people, country people, I'm drawing upon my memories of growing up in a very small town," says Mr. Clark.

TC He grew up in tobacco-farming country, in Elizabethtown, a pre-Revolutionary town of 2,000 in eastern North Carolina.

"I start with a fantasy, which is, 'These are really little fellas who live right around me.' So an idea might be, 'Whatever they find in the yard, they'll play with.' If it happens to be a pencil, they may use it like a log; if it's an envelope, they may use it like a pup tent."

Despite his change of career, Mr. Clark is a man of faith, believing artistic talent will surface on its own -- that there is no way to stop it.

When he was a boy going to grammar school, he'd fill sketch pads with his drawings at night. When he was a student at Davidson, he'd sketch professors and fellow students in notebook margins.

And while he was at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., he went to art school at night. And in the summer, he'd take painting classes.

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