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The Gnome Man

Davidson's Tom Clark has made a career crafting little people

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This fourth head of Jesus is no good. His eyes are too droopy; he looks old and weathered. Jesus head number one was too smooth and polished, like a movie star. Number two just didn't look like Jesus. "John the Baptist maybe," says sculptor Tom Clark. Three had a mean un-Savior-like scowl, and this fourth one is "just not interesting enough. It doesn't grab you," says Clark.

Winston Churchill had the most rejected heads out of over 1,300 Clark gnomes. Abraham Lincoln had 5. Clark couldn't make Einstein old enough and had a bundle of botched heads. One side of his bookshelf in his studio that displays the discarded craniums looks like a model of a revolutionary-era French mortuary.

I'm watching the most prolific gnome sculptor in the country, Tom Clark, add facial hair to a figurine in his Davidson home. Clark has been at it for 30 years crafting an average of 50 per year since he started. There is at least one Clark gnome in every county in the country as well as many throughout the world.

The Tom Clark Museum on Main Street in Davidson carries every gnome he has ever produced. Clark's workshop is in a barn on a 300 acre-farm in Davidson, which is also his home. Had I been aware of his homestead a few weeks ago, it would have been included in my article on Charlotte's most unique homes. Covered by stone on the exterior, the 380-year-old barn was imported from Kent, England. All the tags fell off the wood in transport, and it took two years to figure out the right place for all the parts.. The wood is thin in some places from the gnawing of varmints. Other parts are charred from fire. "It could be the oldest inside of any place in Mecklenburg County," says Clark, a gnome-sized man of 77.

Clark grew up in a tiny rural town in North Carolina called Elizabethtown. He went to school at Davidson and later taught religion and art there. He began to concentrate on his own sculpting work and got students and other faculty members to pose for busts to help him practice.

One day, a student stood him up for one of these practice sessions. Clark had a book of gnomes with him that he had purchased while traveling in Scandinavia, so he opened it up and sculpted a photo of a gnome. A man, who has since become Clark's business partner, thought he could sell them and asked Clark to make more. "I finally did something that someone wants," Clark says of that day. He started making more and giving them names and stories, but he didn't name them things like Snitzenwiggle because the appeal of his gnomes is their human characteristics and expressions.

Above the neck is where they come to life. "Faces come naturally to me," Clark says. "I've had sculptors who aren't too good say, 'I can do everything but the face.' Well, that's the main thing."

For help, Clark consults his book of faces. Some of the faces in his photo album he gets from magazines. Others are photos sent to him from friends or fans hoping their mug can inspire Clark's next creation (He shows me one woman who sent him a photo that has been the inspiration for all of Clark's witch gnomes). Most of the faces he shows me are old or portly, with definitive crevices, folds and wrinkles. Queen Beatrice, with her pronounced cheekbones, is one of his personal favorites.

Once, Clark used an old Newsweek photo of a paper boy in an oversized hat and shoes. He assumed it was a depression era photo until a woman came up to him in Dallas and asked him to sign it. "This is my father," she said.

"You mean it reminds you of your father?" Clark asked.

"No, the photo you used for this was of my father," she said. The photo was taken in 1911, and her father was wearing his father's hat and shoes just to play dress up.

All the people in his book of faces are smiling. Clark says friendliness is the main quality he looks for in a face. He points to a large woman with an ear-to-ear grin. "You just want to smile back at this face. There are some faces you don't, like Sam Donaldson the newsman. His eyebrows go in on an angle. Anytime he speaks you know it's going to be bad news." The only gnome not a religious or historical figure that didn't smile was a bodybuilder gnome who was straining to lift Tinkertoy weights.

I ask Clark if he ever gets tired of crafting gnome figurine. "No. I get disgusted with myself that I can't think of new ideas. But I still love doing it," he says. Some collectors have every gnome. A couple in New Jersey has 2,000 statues, including multiples of the same edition gnome that have been made in different colored clothing. Clark estimates the whole collection would cost $200,000 (Most individual gnomes only cost between $15-$35).

One loyal fan in California took Clark behind the scenes of a Lloyd Bridges movie as a favor for Clark coming to his home to autograph all his gnomes. During lunch, the man was showing the cast a catalogue of Clark gnomes and a woman across the table, a fellow collector, asked if it was a Clark catalogue. "Yes," the man confirmed, then pointed next to him. "And that's Tom Clark." The woman was so shocked that she choked on her food and had to be given the Heimlich maneuver.

Clark doesn't love being watched when he works and faced his worst nightmare once on a trip to Japan. The store that sold his gnomes wanted him to demonstrate the sculpting process and take questions. They set up a platform above the Ginza, Tokyo's Time Square. Thousands of bored and confused passers-by watched him add miniscule pieces of clay to a figurine's leg with a wooden toothpick-like tool. Throughout the whole day, only one person came up to talk. The guy seemed enthusiastic, and the translator told Clark the man really liked the gnomes. Clark asked the translator what else the man said, "Well, frankly, he's drunk," the translator told him.

Will he ever retire? "I was anxious to do 1,000. That came and went. I don't believe I can do 2,000, but I'll just keep going and see what happens.."

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