On any given summer day at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, a walk around the beautifully landscaped paths and wooded trails is a breathtaking experience.
But from Memorial Day through Labor Day, a trip to the arboretum becomes downright magical. That’s when a section of the arboretum’s trails transforms into the Enchanted Forest, and visitors are likely to run into gnomes, fairies, elves, trolls and other garden creatures.
For the second summer in a row, the arboretum has taken a portion of its paths and created a mystical experience for visitors. Stroll along the approximately half-mile trail, and you’ll encounter a series of whimsical houses that could be cozy homes to garden gnomes.
Katharine Garrison, the special events and education coordinator at the gardens, said the arboretum first added gnome homes along the paths in 2014 during the Luminary Walk that’s held each November and December. The response was so positive that it sparked an idea.
“We thought, ‘We should do this in the summer,’ ” Garrison said. “It gives a good reason to come out and enjoy the trails while promoting good health, exercise and being outside with the family.”
The artwork displayed in the Enchanted Forest was created by local artists Michele Sevcik, Andra Chase, Joan Sprenger and Bette Stockdale along with the help of carpenter Dutch Metzker.
The four women came together this year to work on their biggest collaboration yet: a large castle that is the centerpiece of the exhibit. It’s joined by a collection of individual gnome homes sprinkled along the trail that the artists designed for last year’s Enchanted Forest exhibit.
Each one of the women designed and built her own portion of the castle, which is perched carefully on logs from trees that Overland Park city employees gathered during storm cleanup throughout the year. While the women often worked alongside one another in an indoor workshop at the arboretum, every design was an individual creation.
After working on their individual parts since February and logging approximately 600 hours together, the foursome came together in late May and spent a whole day assembling the castle along with Metzker and a crew of arboretum employees.
With the exception of some craft-store jewels that were purchased to decorate part of the castle’s windows and doors and a whole lot of glue, all of the materials have been found in nature.
When the artists weren’t foraging for sticks, moss, pine cones, bark, gourds, seeds and driftwood on their own, arboretum staff members picked up natural materials along trails and added it to a large bin of items to be used for the project.
Stockdale joked that no place was off limits when it came to gathering materials.
“My neighbors would see me walking by and stopping to pick up stuff everywhere,” Stockdale said.
There’s an easygoing friendship among the four women, who first met in 2014 when they were asked to design gnome homes for the Luminary Walk. They had all been gardening, education and event volunteers at the arboretum over the years when the staff asked them to lend their artistic skills.
The group works so well together that they can see things that escape the casual viewer looking at the castle.
“Every one of us can look at it and know who created what,” Sevcik said.
And each one of the artists has a critical eye when viewing her own work. That’s made clear on a recent tour of the Enchanted Forest as Stockdale stopped to glue a piece of a miniature tree that had fallen off the castle. Or as Sprenger hopped off a golf cart to reposition something on one of the individual houses she designed along the trail.
Even though half of the foursome has a professional artistic background and half does not, there is one thing that unites them all.
“We can all think like kids, and that’s why it’s so successful,” Stockdale said.
“It takes us back to our childhood,” Sprenger said.
“They’re like doll houses,” Sevcik added.
Perhaps that’s the attraction for young visitors like 9-year-old Kaylin Hunt of Lenexa, who was in awe of the castle while visiting the arboretum with her aunt.
“I love how they put the stars in the windows of the doors,” Hunt said.
For Chase, overhearing feedback like this from visitors or seeing them gasp in amazement at they round the corner and see the castle for the very first time really brings her joy.
“We volunteer our time, and it’s wonderful when we hear people say complimentary things about our work,” Chase said.
According to Garrison, the exhibit appeals to visitors both young and old.
“We expected just kids to enjoy this, but everyone does,” Garrison said. “We have older individuals request a cart so they can visit, too.”
Garrison said the arboretum saw an increase in visitors by a few thousand people when the Enchanted Forest made its debut last summer.
The buzz of excitement it created led to other activities, as well. The arboretum is offering two-hour classes this summer for children ages 6 to 10 with activities like creative writing, puppetry and building a gnome home.
Registration is required, and fees for the classes run $10 for Friends of the Arboretum members and $15 plus the admission fee for visitors who are not members.
In addition, the arboretum will hold an Enchanted Faire from 4 to 7 p.m. July 22. The family-friendly event will include dancers from the Crescendo Conservatory, a play by Team Shakespeare from the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and other fun activities.
The artists who worked on the Enchanted Forest said they hope their artwork will draw more people out to experience the arboretum for themselves.
“I like that it sparks people’s imagination,” Sevcik said. “It’s worth all the time and hot glue burns. All that goes away.”
And even though it takes a lot of adhesive to secure pieces on an art project that’s this detailed, it’s a glue of a different kind that binds this group together. Sevcik describes that sense of unity.
“If all four of us aren’t in, we don’t do the project.” Sevcik said. “We just work so well together.”
If you go
Enchanted Forest at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.
Where: 8909 W. 179th St., Overland Park
Cost: Daily admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children 6-12 and free for children under 6. There is no admission for members of Friends of the Arboretum (FOTA). Admission is free to everyone on Tuesdays. The Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Information: FOTA website at www.opabg.org or call 913-685-3604.
Special events: ▪ Enchanted Faire from 4 to 7 p.m. July 22. The family-friendly event will include dancers from the Crescendo Conservatory, a play by Team Shakespeare from the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and other fun activities. With the exception of food, face painting and balloon art, it’s all included in the cost of admission to the arboretum.
▪ The arboretum is offering two-hour classes this summer for children ages 6 to 10 with activities like creative writing, puppetry and building a gnome home. Registration is required and fees for the classes run $10 for Friends of the Arboretum members and $15 plus the admission fee for visitors who are not members.