Beyond the splashy pastels of the Monet Garden, through the winding trails of the Legacy Garden and just past the heavy canopies of the Marder Woodland Gardens, three miniature houses quietly await.
Little mushroom stairs lead up to miniature homes, with doors the size of a child’s hand, inch-wide windows and moss-thatched roofs on top. Tiny numerals give the houses’ addresses, although their inhabitants are nowhere to be found.
The Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens staff has placed 13 of these intricate gnome houses along nature trails as part of a new display, “The Enchanted Forest.” The houses opened to the public this month and have already drawn plenty of curious viewers.
“It rained all day … and people were still here looking at the houses and were really excited,” said Katharine Garrison, special events and education coordinator at the arboretum. “It’s just kind of a zeitgeist thing.”
The current gnome village expands on the artwork displayed at the arboretum’s Luminary Walk last November. Overland Park seems to be a welcoming spot for gnomes: Tiny homes that mysteriously appeared along Tomahawk Creek Trail in 2013 inspired an award-winning documentary by a local filmmaker.
The artists who created the gnome village at the Luminary Walk brought back their skills for this new village — after much begging and pleading, Garrison said — and spent about 500 hours among the four of them on the project.
The Johnson County artists — Michele Sevcik, Joan Sprenger, Andra Chase and Bette Stockdale — all began by choosing from logs scattered around the arboretum. From there, they collected natural decorations like twigs, moss and leaves to give the houses some life.
“We claim a piece and look at it a bit,” said Chase, of Overland Park. “We figure out how it speaks to us, where we can put doors and windows and what we can say about that piece to make it a fanciful gnome home. The more you do to it, the more you’re inspired to do more.”
Chase began creating gnome and fairy homes after she was enchanted by the work of Sevcik, the group’s leader, Chase says. Sevcik said there were no drawings or preconceived notions going into this project.
“It’s the whole thing that you don’t choose art; it chooses you,” Sevcik said. “It’s the same thing with the logs: You just start to imagine how it would shape into a house. That’s what makes it fun.”
The gnome garden fills the otherwise-vacant spot in the arboretum’s education programming for July. In addition to the display, the arboretum holds classes, including make-your-own gnome rooms and theatrical performances about gnomes.
Last week, children — mostly young girls — turned out to make their own card stock gnome houses. On their way to the clearing where the classes are held, they oohed and aahed over the tiny houses tucked along the trail. One girl asked the most important question of the day: “What is a gnome?” Upon finding out, she added her own pipe-cleaner creature to her card stock house.
Betsy Harlan of Wakarusa, Kan., said her granddaughter couldn’t wait to visit the gnome and fairy houses.
“This morning she kept waking up and waking up, saying, ‘Is it time yet? Is it time yet?’ ” Harlan said. “There were sparkles in her eyes.”
The 400-acre arboretum recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, and Garrison said the gnome display is a way to get visitors out into the woodland areas, not just the 10 botanical gardens that attract the most attention. The five miles of hiking trails play host to a variety of wildlife including (if you’re lucky, like this reporter) some adorable spotted fawns.
The display recaptures a bit of the magic from the gnome homes that cropped up along Tomahawk Creek Trail a few years ago. They drew the attention of local filmmaker Sharon Liese, whose short documentary, “The Gnomist,” tracked the mysterious gnome homes to Robyn Frampton, a single mother living in Overland Park at the time.
Frampton created the elaborate miniscule homes to help cope with a painful divorce. Along the way, she made a special connection with another Overland Park woman, Kelly Fisher, whose 3-year-old daughter had died of brain cancer. Allie — Fisher’s “Little Owl” — inspired Frampton to build a home in her honor, complete with a little owl on the door.
But Overland Park officials asked Frampton to remove the homes, saying the city was concerned about their upkeep.
Pat Griggs, a volunteer at the arboretum who helped create the gnome house classes, said she thinks the arboretum’s display was inspired by the popularity of Frampton’s houses.
“They’re very creative and fun to look at, and I think it’s piqued people’s interests,” she said. “It’s just a kind of fun activity for everybody to do.”
Frampton, calling from her current home in Utah, said she had originally thought about moving her display to the arboretum because of its beauty but decided against making people pay to see it.
That said, she thought it was fantastic that an enchanted forest had made its way back to Overland Park.
“Anything anyone can offer to inspire another person is a productive thing,” she said. “For the community to come together to do that — I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
Kate Miller: 816-234-4077, @_Kate_Miller_
“The Enchanted Forest”
Gnome homes will be on display through Aug. 15 at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, 8909 W. 179th St. Admission to the arboretum costs $3 for adults and $1 for children 6-12. Children under 6 are free.
Classes related to the Enchanted Forest are held every Wednesday morning. (If there’s high demand, more classes may be offered; check the website.) The classes cost $5. See arfop.org/Arboretum_Exhibits/Enchanted_Forest.html