For so many Wilmingtonians, each visit to Airlie Gardens proves to be a new adventure into a secret garden. Yes, the great live oak at its center is still, well … great. Yes, the Mystery Grave remains to be “just an old tombstone”—as one woman noted to her friends while walking ahead of us last Sunday morning. Nevertheless, each square foot of Airlie is more than the soil, flora and sum of its mainstays. Airlie Gardens is a natural piece of art, just as it is a natural space for art.
GARDEN ADVENTURE: Tour Airlie Gardens’ ‘Gnome Invasion.’ Photos by Tom Dorgan
Its latest summer exhibit has the grounds peppered with giant 5-foot garden gnomes in “GNOME Invasion.” Each uniquely painted, spackled or bedazzled in some unique way or another by local artists, Airlie’s 2018 summer art exhibit opened this month and will remain on display through October 28.
“Art is personal and each person experiences it differently,” Airlie Garden’s Janine Powell observes of the 15 gnomes. “We hope people see the beauty and craftsmanship in each one—that they appreciate the hundreds of hours the artists spent transforming their gnomes.”
Airlie’s staff curated the exhibit. Guest services manager Rebecca Pearce first thought of the idea and was inspired by the “Chicago Cows”—300 life-size painted fiberglass cows which debuted as part of the “Cows on Parade” in Chicago in 1999. So she contacted the company for a catalog of fiberglass figures.
“The garden gnomes were selected as a fun way take on something you would find in a home garden,” Powell explains.
About 40 artists submitted designs and applications explaining their gnome-vision. Among them is Aiden Kenny who contributed “Blue Willow Gnome.” Kenny’s gnome greets visitors just between the Tranquility Gardens and Butterfly House. The composition is inspired by the traditional Blue Willow China pattern most have seen on one dining table or another. She made specific modifications to her gnome for its place in Airlie.
“Contemplating that my gnome will end up in a garden, I attached an indoor/outdoor white bowl to his hands behind his back,” she notes, “which has drainage holes and is perfect for bird seed. Hopefully in the future there will be a lucky group of birds being fed by a big blue gnome.”
All of the gnomes were placed based on accessibility; they’re not off-the-beaten path of the nature trails and their aesthetics match specific parts of the grounds. Each character guides visitors through the gardens, with some standing front and center in a bit of majesty, like Elena Wright’s “King of the Gnomes” at Spring Garden. Others watch from a distance, like “The Sweet Nature in Me” by Jahde Justad Art, until passersby venture closer.
“My inspiration came from my love and appreciation for nature,” Justad says. “My first impression walking through the exhibit was this was going to be fun. . . . Each one has its own unique character. I find myself drawn to the ones with a lot of detail. I like finding something new every time I look at it.”
While most gnomes have been painted, decorated and displayed for the garden alone, Justad has edited her gnome into portraiture prints. He’s even on postcards available in the gift shop. “I have had a blast putting together video footage of the whole process of painting him,” Justad tells (the process can be found on her website or Facebook page). “The exhibit as a whole is such a fun experience. Walking through and finding each gnome shining bright and beautiful is quite the adventure.”
“Reflections from the Garden” by Ryan Berrigan literally shimmers and shines from head to toe with thousands of mirror pieces. Other media include mosaic glass, used by Brooks Koff to intricately piece together floral garb in “Gnome de Bloom.” Some gnomes are brought to life through whimsical design or abstract painting, a la Waverly Hawthorne’s “Flights of Fancy.” Others are given accents and accessories characters obviously need for their motif, such as “Wilmington Gnome Builder,” whose creators Paul J. Stavovy and Darren Mulvenna armed the gnome with a pair of glasses and utility belt.
“You’ll see ‘Mini Minnie’ in the Minnie Evans tribute garden,” Powell adds. “[Catherine Halecki] was inspired by Minnie’s art and incorporated some of Minnie’s favorite themes into her piece.”
“It’s like an Easter egg hunt—just replace the eggs with life-size garden gnomes,” contributing artist Grace Brookshire explains. “It was really fun to search for each gnome hidden amongst the garden’s foliage. So many talented artists contributed to the exhibit, and every gnome is completely unique.”
Brookshire’s design for “Mountain to Sea, Beautiful NC” is based on her love for our state’s wild places. “My husband and I have lived all across North Carolina,” she details, “surfing the coastlines, sailing down the ICW, backpacking through the mountains, and fishing everywhere. As an artist and illustrator, I wanted to pay tribute to the beautiful NC wilderness and what it provides us. . . . It has be such a fun experience and an honor to partake in an exhibit where art is intermingled with nature.”