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Not Your Average Garden Gnome • by LaLa Ortiz

LaLa OrtizI feel so honored to be back on CRESCENDOh. Thank you Jenny Doh for inviting me back! Last time I was here I was able to share a little bit of my journey into the art world. This time I am going to share one of my creations as it comes into being through my hands. I will start by saying that these creatures that come to me are real. I do not possess the ability to make them up in my head nor the ability to write up their stories by simply picking up a pen or pounding out words on a computer. No, they are not figments of my imagination at all. They are real, mystical beings, ancient and wise, with lives, and histories beyond my wildest dreams. I am just one of the fortunate ones that has been gifted with a connection to the faerie realm. Perhaps I was dropped on the head or licked too much lead-based paint as a child … or maybe I am just a good listener. I spend many hours in the gardens, the woods, and local marshlands with a lump of clay, a camera, and a journal. The faeries whisper their secrets and stories and I listen. SHHHH!

The Beginnings of my Garden Gnome
Today I am going to share the story and some step-out photos of a garden gnome. Like all other garden gnomes he is ancient as the eldest oak trees and just as sacred. He has also informed me that he is not simply the average garden-variety gnome. “How dreadful that must be,” he lamented, “to spend your days in a tamed flower bed of impatiens and petunias, in the suburbs, without a wild flower or forest fungus in sight”!

OK, that’s it! My mouth dropped open and hit the floor. All of this came out of him, all of a sudden, after more than a week of not speaking to me at all. I didn’t even know that he was a garden gnome! At this stage I actually thought that he was a shy faerie or a pleasant pixie still too busy taking in the scenery of our mortal world and not yet able to figure out whether I was friend or foe.

So here we are at the beginning. I start with a brief period of meditation. Then I move on to the zen stage of conditioning the clay and mixing my custom colors. Polymer clay must be “conditioned” (mixed into a uniform and homogenous blend of plasticizers, pigments, and polymer particles) in order to be able to cure properly. Polymer clay that is not conditioned can result in finished pieces that are fragile, brittle, and crumbly.

I use several brands of clay all mixed in together to get the look and feel that I want for my creature. Most of my polymer clay is more than 10 years old. The formulas have changed many times over since the last time I needed to purchase clay. I stocked up on what I liked long ago and each creation is a custom blend of colors, formulas, and brands. One thing I stick with is using a lot of translucent clay. It gives my creatures the lifelike glow of real flesh and blood. The breath of faerie magic does the rest!

Starting with the Clay
I chop up several pound of clay at once into somewhat uniform chunks and then whiz them around in a mini food processor. Then I hand form it into disks (just like making mud pies! Remember how much fun that was?!) and run it through my Dream Machine ( a souped-up, heavy-duty, pasta machine made just for polymer clay). Any pasta machine will do. One with a motor is even better. Just remember that once you use any of your kitchen tools or appliances for polymer clay they now must be banished from the kitchen forever! Polymer clay is NOT food safe! All fair in Love and Art!

Now that you have three pounds of conditioned polymer clay “flesh” waiting to come to life, it is time to move on to the skull. The skull is made of an egg-shaped ball of aluminum foil, on a length of wire (I used bailing wire found at hardware stores), and covered with masking tape.

The head gets covered with polymer clay. Just a thin sheet. This is the first layer of flesh and tendons. We will add more as we build up the facial features and cranial structure. Right now the goal is to add a thin even layer to coat the taped up skull, without any air pockets. Air expands when it is heated. This is not such a good thing for sculptures. It can cause cracking and breaking so, take your time and avoid the agony.

Creating the Face
I have marked the head with gridlines to help me with placement of the facial features. Halfway down the middle, halfway across the middle (horizontal), and then halfway two more times to mark off the nose and mouth. Next I made the orbits of the eyes. These cavities are pretty deep. Push them all the way back into the skull “bones.” These cavities need to be deep and large enough to accommodate eyeballs, muscles, nerves, and glands. To this gnome, I’ve added the acrylic eyeballs and the bony structure that will make up the frontal bones that surround the eye. This was my first attempt at using these acrylic eyes! I usually hand paint them. After each addition of clay, I smooth seams out with my fingers and a brush of herbal alcohol (you can use rubbing alcohol or just plain water too).

Now that the eye area is smoothed over, how about a nice strong jawbone? I tend to favor heart-shaped faces with pointed chins and rounded cheeks. What’s next? You got it, more smoothing and blending. At this point I am thinking chubby-cheeked, cherubic, pixie folk. Let’s get back to those eyes. Without the eyelids they are looking a little distraught. I’m sorry little fae. I’ll give you eyelids so that you can blink and rest your eyes a bit.

Building up the brow bone and eyelids by adding crescents of clay above each eye and then blend, blend, blend those seams in. I am using a pointed spatula tool and a big aluminum knitting needle. Knitting needles make great sculpting tools and you can still use them for knitting when the clay is all smoothed out!

Taking a Break
OK, so now that the eyes are somewhat completed who are you? I’m smoothing and massaging the head and face with my hands and thumbs now. I’m waiting for that delightful introduction that usually would have happened by now. Alas, this time I don’t get a greeting, not a word. The expression is as lifeless as the plastic that the eyes are made of. After suffering from tremendous feelings of rejection and inadequacy I walked away! For two days I gave this little lifeless head the silent treatment. I wrapped it up in plastic and put it in a bag. I only peeked in a few times over that 48-hour period.

After losing more sleep than I could afford to lose and drinking more wine than usual, I set myself up in the garden by the pond and mustered up the courage to get back to it. I chose to ignore the hollow eyes staring back at me, cold and perturbed. Instead I moved on to the nose. What is a nose formed of anyway? Why it is nothing but a teardrop-shaped little knob placed between the eyes. I’ve done this hundreds of times before and I can certainly do it again. (How about a little chant first? To raise the vibrations in our surroundings and bring on a sense of inner peace. (((((Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om)))) OK now a few deep breaths, exhale.) Let’s move on to smoothing out the seams around the nose. This is done with a big knitting needle, size 15–10 mm, and my fingers. Don’t make eye contact! Just keep moving!

Wow! You’ve got one big, honkin’ nose dude! At this point I was informed that he was indeed a garden gnome and that nose was capable of detecting the presence of every plant form in the faerie realm as well as the surface of the Earth. With just a whiff he could detect every mineral present in the soil for miles on end. He could also smell the stench of common, mortal blood, of which I reeked and thus was not worthy of his companionship or conversation. However, since he was stuck with me he might as well give me some background so that my simple mind could get it right and be better able to “serve” him! Wow! Talk about feelings of rejection and inadequacy!

Back to the Face
It is time to give him a mouth. Do I really want to do this? The mouth is just a couple of flaps of flesh placed under the nose. How hard can that be, right? Place the upper lip flap and blend first, then add the lower lip flap and, well, you know the drill …

Now we need some fat pads added on the cheeks and a little more bone in the chin area. Add three crescent shapes to the cheeks and chin and then break out that knitting needle/smoothing tool.

After smoothing and refining the mouth a bit he tells me that I have got it all wrong! He smokes a pipe and I haven’t left him with an opening to hold it. Simple peasant woman! What do I know?! Hey, do you watch Californication? At this point he is reminding me of a pale, bald, caricature Hank Moody! Oh, I love that guy! Mr. Gnomie is not impressed!

“Fix my nose” he ordered. “I can’t breathe!” OK, sorry! I was sidetracked by thoughts of a charismatic man. I am after all only human. Full of smelly, mortal blood and all! He tells me that if we were in the faerie realm I’d be severely punished for speaking to him in such a tone but, since I am not finished with him yet, he will spare me the humility! “Now get back to work! The surface of my skin is way too smooth and creamy. Rough it up a bit. I am 10,000 years old and I’ve earned every line on my face.” Geez! I don’t even know what a 10,000 year-old being is supposed to look like. Time to pull out the rake and rough him up!

A little extra flesh gets added at the neck and double chin. Now we can give him some ears. Maybe that has been the problem all along. He can talk to me, but he doesn’t hear me! I know, I know, he has eyes, but he doesn’t see me. For I am a commoner, even worse than that, I am a stinky mortal with the life span of an insect. Even the rodents in the faerie lands live longer than I will. This he points out is the reason why humans are so stupid. “They don’t hang around long enough to learn any of the important lessons that the universe has to offer. Furthermore, although human time moves much slower than faerie time humans are still franticy-panicky, rushing around at a hurried pace, spinning their wheels over nothing and getting nothing of any significance done.” He rolled his eyes as this slipped out of the corner of his mouth. “Oh, now you’ve gone and put me in a bad mood,” he grumbled. “Where’s my pipe?!”

Well now I am totally flustered! Where were we again? Oh yeah, ears. I like ears. Ears are teardrop shapes blended in with a few internal indentations. The top of the ear meets up with the top of the eye and the bottom of the lobe lines up with the mouth. Really, it’s basic anatomy. Pull out your knitting needle, AKA smoothing tool, AKA ear placement measuring tool and see where your ears line up. Try it on your family and friends as well if you don’t believe me. Here’s the catch: You have to make both ears match up with each other as well! Take your time, and check your work from all angles. As the ancient, old gnome has said, we humans run around in frantic panic and yet we accomplish nothing at all. Well, let’s show him what a lovely job we do with his ears! Now that is an ear to be proud of!

Bringing the Clay to Life
Into the “sauna,” AKA the oven, to be heat cured. I propped him up with poly-fleece and cardboard tubing. The sauna was set at 200 for 20 minutes, 250 for 20 minutes, and 275 for 60 minutes. I gradually worked up the temp so that the internal layers would have time to come up to temperature before the external/skin layers were cured and hard. This helps prevent cracking from sub dermal layers expanding from heat after the skin (dermal) layers have cured and become rigid. I always get a bit of anxiety at this point. At this point I am making a commitment to this being, to bring it to life in our world. I believe that it is necessary to be cautious of the spirits that we call over from the faerie realm. Although they are, for the most part, good and pure, beings of kindness and light, they are still wild spirits that can wreak havoc on world if the mood strikes them to do so.

Out of the sauna and onto hair and make-up. I begin by adding light washes of color with very watered-down acrylic paint. I apply it with a brush and dab off excess with a cosmetic sponge. I’m working out in the garden by the pond again. It is a warm spring day, somewhere in the 80s. The sun is making the paint dry very fast so I will only work on small areas at a time building up color intensity gradually. I am using raw umber. I like the muddy, dirty look of it. It works very well for the posh, royal garden gnome who has hung out in the Royal Gardens of King Oberon and Queen Titania for 10,000 years.

Don’t forget to get into all of the creases and crevices around the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. This will help to create realistic shadows and dimension, which will bring your being to life!

A little more color around the eyes. I used a wash of ultra marine blue, which turned a dark purplish color. This is perfect for an old soul such as himself. It deepens the eyes. I also lined the inner eyes, tear ducts, waterlines, and eyeballs with red paint. I washed some red onto the face, especially the nose as well.

When I notice the red eyes and nose I thought that maybe he had allergies like me. He scoffed at me, ”How absurd! What an insult! What nerve! Garden gnomes do not get allergies! Who ever heard of a garden gnome with allergies? How worthless would that be? Anyhow, it is impossible for a gnome to be born with allergies for gnomes are not born at all. They are made of fertile Earth, forest fungus, and wild flower nectar, with a touch of faerie magic. And, if you must know, my nose and face have the rosy glow of a gentleman who fancies a touch of whiskey from time to time. And not that it is any of your business, but I happen to have acquired a taste for a very special, 1,000 year old elixir, of King Oberon’s special reserves. He has gifted me with a special flask that never goes dry. It was a thank-you gift for giving him the secrets of the plants and flowers of the faerie world. There this one particular purple flower that he has a special interest in. Oh but enough of that. You are only a mere mortal. I don’t want to confuse your empty little head with the complexities of faerie magic. Besides that it would be against the rules and very dangerous. Simple minds should not be given the power of magic. Simple minds should not be given any power, period!”

Oh, such snobbery! How rude! I should glue your mouth shut!

“Nonsense! How world I smoke my pipe? Where is my pipe?”

Oh he is getting worse by the second! I need some of that 1,000-year-old whiskey! This guy is driving me to drink!

Finishing Touches
Time for hair. I am using natural fibers (white with black tips — I am trying to talk him into a purple stripe, but he’s not buying it!). I think this is llama or alpaca. He is only getting facial hair. I used Fabri-Tac by Beacon. My all-time favorite fabric glue. I also really like Barge contact cement for hair but it wasn’t at my fingertips so I went with the other. It may have been worth my time to pull out the Barge. It has a longer open time than Fabri-Tac. Which means more time to fiddle with your placement before the glue dries. This is messy, messy, messy! Fingers full of glue and fibers and all the while he is yammering on about how he only has his beard tended to at “The Royal Salon.” He is tended to by pixies while faeries sing and dance and feed him honey cakes with clotted cream and sugared violets and spiked ginger beer, while I on the other hand hadn’t bothered to offer him a spot of tea or a crumb of stale bread. What a dreadful hostess!

“Now fetch me my hat and pipe! I want to go out into the garden and have a smoke if that’s OK with you!” He went right back to ordering me around, and my frazzled nerves could not help but to react to his sharp tongue.

“Your hat? Your pipe? I haven’t seen either of them. Tell me about them. And before I let you go out into the world please tell me your name!” I pleaded.

“I wear a hand-painted purple cap, made of the softest skin, and accented with a touch of gold. This type of hat is reserved only for the Noble and Royal Garden Gnomes. The average garden-variety gnomes wear felted red caps, made of inferior fibers, by unskilled hands. My cap was created by a master artisan of faerie millinery.” “OK, purple cap, softest skin, touch of gold. I got it. Now tell me more about this pi …”

“Silence, village idiot! I was not finished speaking.”

Whoa! That was harsh, even for him!

“Don’t forget my magic flask of whiskey. I am quite parched from having to repeat everything to you over and over again! How blissful it must be to have such a mushy brain. My pipe was also a gift. It was given to me by the elves as payment for my work with their trees. The Elvenwood forest had grown sick. The ancient trees were dying and along with it they would take their protective magic that hides the elves from the mortal world. I spoke to the trees. I asked them what they wanted and needed to get well again. It turns out that all they wanted was for the elves to sing and dance and swing on their branches. This had been forbidden for some time because the elder elves feared that the ancient trees could not withstand the commotion or pressure of a wild, faerie world party. Oh they were so wrong. Faerie magic is pure energy and the more magic spirits and mystical beings gathered around, the more merriment and magic abounds!”

I wanted to get him back on track about the pipe but I dared not interrupt him again for fear that he might scold me again!

“So the elves through a merry festival and mystical beings came from all over faerie world to celebrate. The festival lasted for 30 days and 30 nights. When the last fae folk flitted off to his faerie glen the trees that were once gray, and wilted stretched out their branches and sprouted leaves, branches, and blossoms. A few new saplings peaked out of the Earth and the protective shield of the trees was restored. With tremendous gratitude the elf king cut a branch from one of the eldest and most magical trees and formed with his hands my pipe. Made of living elfwood, and all of it’s magic. Even all of these centuries later it still sprouts leaves and the bowl is never emptied of very fine, curly lichen for smoking. Now if you do not mind, I would like to go out to the garden. I noticed some fine looking mushrooms out there and I am a little hungry!”

OK, I think I got it … magic elfwood, centuries old, still living and growing, never empty … is this your pipe?

“Indeed it is! Come on girl, hand it over! Now take me out to the garden”! He is so bossy! No smoking in the house! Out to the garden! There you go. Ahhh, is that a smile I see? About as close to one as I will ever get from him, I suppose. I’ll take it!

Sir Gibborous Grouser Noble Gnobbins Gnome, of the Curmudgeon Clan, of Royal Garden Gnomes, of the Wild Thyme Woods, Where the Wild Thyme Blows, where Oxlips and Nodding Violet Grows. I am pleased to meet you. I apologize for all of my grumbling. I get cranky when I misplace my pipe.”

LaLa Ortiz will be working on his body and wardrobe over the next couple of weeks. If you want to see the rest of him come together, please come and visit him on her blog:


Thank you Jenny for allowing me to share Sir Gibborous Grouser Noble Gnobbins Gnome and the story of how he came to be! This is the first time I have ever shared so much of the dialog that takes place as I sculpt a new character.

I hope that your readers enjoy the ride!

OK, gotta go now, hiding from the guys with the white strait jackets!

You creative story is out of this world!! I wish I could 'hear' the voices of my characters or compositions as well as you do!! Love the step outs as well, just fantastic work!! xoxo

Wow! Look at him with his beautiful "tan". How wonderful for you to share his beginnings with all of us. I'll be checking back to see his wardrobe :-)


Can he seriously be put outside? How does he tolerate the weather? My last garden Gnome was stoneware.

Thanks ever so much for sharing this wonderful tutorial with us, you are very generous.
The best to you,

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