Kelly Fisher found solace in few places. Allie, her 3-year-old daughter, her “Little Owl,” had died of brain cancer in 2013.
But on a winter day early the next year, she and her family discovered a bit of magic on a winding, wooded path near their Overland Park home.
Fisher was walking Tomahawk Creek Trail with her husband, Kyle, and Allie’s sister, Evie, now 8, when they stumbled upon a hollow tree with a hinged purple door and a tiny sign that read “64 Hollow Tree Lane.” The tree looked like a home for a gnome or a fairy, but there was no magical creature inside — just a string of handwritten notes left by passersby.
Using a red marker and white slip of paper that someone had left nearby, Kelly wrote a note:
“In memory of Allie Fisher. 10/16/09 - 6/13/13. Love you Little Owl!”
That spring, the Fisher family returned to the forest, where they found another hollow tree with a hinged door. This one was turquoise, with a tiny golden owl and a carved inscription: “Little Owl.”
Their magical discovery is captured in “The Gnomist,” Overland Park filmmaker Sharon Liese’s short documentary about the mysterious gnome homes that sprouted along the trail.
Now the film is floating on a bit of its own fairy dust. It officially premiered at April’s prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York and went on to win multiple awards. (The biggest — best documentary at the L.A. Shorts Fest in September — made it eligible for an Academy Award nomination, but this month the film missed the cut for 10 semifinalists.)
CNN bought the distribution rights and began streaming the film on its new video website, Great Big Story, on Nov. 13, World Kindness Day. So far it has been viewed about 300,000 times. “The Gnomist” should find its biggest single audience to date on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” next month.
The secret behind the film, Liese says, is its simple, yet powerful, message: “There is kindness out there.”
Tracking the Gnomist
Until this year, Liese was perhaps best known for “High School Confidential,” an award-winning 2008 documentary series that followed a group of teenage girls through four years at Blue Valley Northwest High School.
The filmmaker got the idea for “The Gnomist” after reading about the fairy homes in The Star.
No one knew who built them, so Liese made it her goal to find out for a movie. She sought out the curious doors along the trail, just south of 135th Street between Switzer and Antioch roads, but was even more fascinated by the people peering inside them.
Out on the trail, Liese met a 12-year-old girl with Type 1 diabetes.
“She was having issues at school, being bullied by other kids,” Liese says. For the girl and many others, the forest became a refuge. “It became this spiritual, sacred place people went to for emotional healing.”
Liese started leaving notes for the Gnomist. They went unanswered for weeks, but eventually, the modest maker came forward and agreed to appear in the film.
The identity of the Gnomist is revealed in Liese’s movie, but, like the ending of other movies, we won’t spoil the secret here.
In a recent phone interview, the Gnomist said that he (or she) is a “frequent mover” who landed in Overland Park in 2012.
“There are a couple of things I do when I move to a new community,” the Gnomist said. “One of those things is find a trail.”
The Gnomist was enchanted by Tomahawk Creek Trail and its many hollow trees. One had a hole in the shape of a door, so the Gnomist made one out of wood, painted it red, and attached it to the trunk with screws. It wasn’t long before passersby started leaving tiny house-warming gifts inside, such as wildflowers, golf balls and toys.
After the Gnomist installed a second purple door, the offerings become more elaborate: gnome-sized welcome mats, a bird house and bouquet of flowers.
In return, the Gnomist installed a “Firefly Forest” sign and stand-alone gnome homes on tree stumps. Those who looked inside could see tiny beds, wooden clogs on the floor, moving boxes, even a table and chairs set with a tea kettle overflowing with “steam” produced by dry ice.
Awed kids left notes outside: “I believe in fairies.” “I love you.” “What are you?”
Other notes revealed heartbreaking wishes (“My mom’s in the hospital. Can you please make her better?”) and deeply personal confessions about struggles with drugs or religion. The Gnomist secretly collected them twice a day, and read every word.
“I consider them some of my greatest treasures,” the Gnomist says. “They still make me cry.”
After reading Kelly Fisher’s note, the Gnomist decided to build a door in honor of Allie. Liese’s cameras captured the Gnomist making it and installing it at night, when the trail was empty.
Liese found the Fisher family’s phone number and called them. She told them what she was working on and said there was something they should see on the path. Within hours, the family was on the trail, cameras in tow. “The Gnomist” captures the Fishers’ first encounter with the Little Owl door.
“Mom, look!” Evie says.
“What’s it say?” Kelly asks.
“Little Owl,” Evie says, gazing in wonder. “It’s cool.”
Later in the film, Kelly explains, “It’s the most beautiful act of compassion, that a stranger would know the pain and think, ‘I should do something to honor that short life.’ ”
It became this spiritual, sacred place people went to for emotional healing.
Filmmaker Sharon Liese
The Fishers return to the Little Owl door when they want to feel close to Allie. Kelly and Kyle went there on the day that Allie would have started kindergarten. And on Mother’s Day — an exceptionally tough day for Kelly — she found a card inside the door from someone who had seen “The Gnomist.”
“Thank you for sharing such a touching story,” the note read. “She will not be forgotten.”
In 2014, the Gnomist moved to Utah to be closer to family.
Before leaving Overland Park, the Gnomist made an agreement with the city to remove many of the homes and doors along the trail. A parks official explains in the film that the city cannot allow unapproved objects.
The Gnomist wants to work with cities in Utah to build gnome and fairy abodes in parks there.
“We’ll see if it’s embraced in the same way here as it was there in Overland Park,” the Gnomist says, “but I suspect that the Firefly Forest was truly remarkable. I don’t know if that experience can ever be re-created.”
Although most of the original gnome homes are gone, the Little Owl door remains — and other copycat miniatures have popped up like mushrooms along the trail. Among them: a Halloween-themed pumpkin house, a bright blue birdhouse with a pink door and seashell bed, and a moss-covered shack affixed to a stump.
On a drizzly afternoon last week, Kelly Fisher walked past all of them. The normally busy trail was empty except for an occasional jogger. It was quiet, except for the sound of the swollen creek, woodpecker calls and squirrels scuttling across wet brown leaves.
When Fisher got to the Little Owl door, she looked inside and found a blue note card soaked with rain and dotted with dirt. “Praying for you,” the note read. “Hugs.”
She didn’t recognize the name of the woman who signed it, but she kept it anyway. On the walk back, the drizzle turned to steady drops, but Fisher was in no hurry.
“Today, just finding that note — that was really nice,” she said. “People really are good.”
Where to watch
▪ “The Gnomist” can be seen on Great Big Story, CNN’s new video website.
▪ It will be available starting Dec. 7 on CNN.com.
▪ “Anderson Cooper 360” will show a 17-minute version and feature the people in front of and behind the camera. It’s set to air on CNN mid-December.
Team Little Owl
Kelly and Kyle Fisher are working to raise awareness and funding to research better treatments for children with brain cancer. They called their nonprofit Team Little Owl in honor of Allie “Little Owl” Fisher, who was 3 when she died of gliomatosis cerebria, a rare brain cancer. Team Little Owl’s largest annual event is a community sale in October, the month of Allie’s birthday. Last month it raised $33,000.
For more information on Team Little Owl, including how to donate, go to TeamLittleOwl.org, or follow Team Little Owl on Twitter (@TeamLittleOwl) or Facebook. Those who want to donate can send checks to the Children’s Brain Tumor Family Foundation, c/o Team Little Owl, P.O. Box 25293, Overland Park, KS 66225.