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Garden gnomes: magical or tacky?

Garden gnomes: magical or tacky? Well, art is in the eye of the beholder, and for my advanced seventh-grade art class, garden gnomes are magical.

Each year, my advanced class looks forward to our clay unit. This year, I was looking for something new to do with my students, and my daughter suggested garden gnomes. With the popularity of gnomes, I thought this was a perfect idea, and so did my students.

Prior to beginning the project, we discovered that gnomes have a very long history dating back to medieval times. A fairytale describes them as brownie-like creatures that are nocturnal helpers.

Philip Griebel made the first ceramic garden gnomes in Germany in the mid-1800s, and his gnomes were based on local myths and stories about gnomes' willingness to help in the garden at night. Lore has it that it's good luck to place a gnome in your garden and, as a result, you might notice your garden is a bit tidier.

Sir Charles Isham introduced garden gnomes to England in 1847 when he brought back 21 figures from a trip to Germany, and placed them as ornaments in the gardens of his estate. His daughters thought they were ugly, dreadful creatures, and after Sir Charles Isham passed away, they destroyed all but one. The surviving gnome, known as Lampy, is on display today, and is insured for $1.5 million.

We also learned about "gnoming," which is a movement in several European countries. People will kidnap gnomes to set them free and "return them to the wild." Some of these gnomes have even been sent on trips around the world. This information inspired my students, and they couldn't wait to get started!

GETTING STARTED ON OUR GNOMES We began the project with a presentation that included a brief history and lots of examples of gnomes through time. After discussing characteristics of gnomes, the students drew several sketches in their sketchbooks. A review of the fundamental techniques for working with clay and terminology followed.

We started by making two 3-inch pinch pots, which we stuffed with newspaper to provide support while sculpting (paper will burn off later in the kiln during firing). The two pots were then joined, creating the body. A hole was cut in the where the head was to be attached. The head was another smaller pinch pot stuffed with newspaper and attached to the top of the body, over the hole. Large coils were rolled out to form the arms and legs. After the students added the arms legs, they decided what position their gnome would take. Many were sitting, and a few were standing or lying down.

Once the basic form was completed, the fun really began. We made hats by flattening a piece of clay, forming it into a hollow cone shape and stuffing it with newspaper. A hole was cut in the top of the head before attaching the hat to allow air to escape.

Each student added their personal touch to their gnomes with details, such as beards, belts, boots, facial features and hand positions. Several students placed objects in the hands of their gnomes. One of my students, Lauren, made her gnome saluting her dad, who is serving in the military overseas.

Once the gnomes were completed, we cut a hole in the bottom of the body, and poked a few more small holes with a pin tool to ensure the hot air could escape during the bisque-firing. The gnomes took several weeks to complete. To prevent them from drying out between class periods, we wrapped them in plastic and placed them in plastic bags. Once completed, it took another couple of weeks for the gnomes to dry out.

Once glaze fired, the gnomes were finished. My students, who were very proud of their gnomes, couldn't wait to place them on display in our school's glass showcase.

Upon reflection, my students expressed to me how much they learned about hand building with clay and its challenges. Many of them talked about how they enjoyed learning to make facial features and hands. And many felt that the most valuable lesson was learning to visualize something, and then create it with their hands.

I think we all discovered gnomes are both magical and tacky--and, regardless, extremely enjoyable to make.


Middle-school students will ...

* learn about the origins and history of the garden gnome.

* create a gnome out of clay using a variety of hand-building techniques.

* learn clay terms.

* learn about glazing and firing processes.


* Sketchbooks and pencils

* Plastic bags for storage

* Clay tools

* Glazes and brushes

* Low-fire white clay

Deborah Flynt teaches fourth-through eighth-grade art at Riverdale Elementary School in Germantown, Tenn.
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Author:Flynt, Deborah
Publication:Arts & Activities
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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