Get to “Gnome” the Artists behind Sweet Gnome Chicago

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Please join us for Our “Sweet gnome Chicago” after-hours event

Have a chance to enjoy the Spring Show and to meet Zena, Rob, and some of their collaborators—the artists behind your favorite gnomes–while the Conservatory is closed to the general public. Click here to purchase your ticket.

The “Sweet Gnome Chicago” Spring Show is an exciting partnership with artists Zena Sakowski and Rob Kelly, the Chicago Park District, the Lincoln Park Conservancy, and Chicagoans like you. With funding provided by the Lincoln Park Conservancy, Ms. Sakowski oversaw a massive artistic process in which unique and colorful garden gnomes were painted in classes, homes, and cultural centers by Chicagoans of all ages. Participants created gnomes in honor of parents, countries, sports teams, movies, and more; thus, each gnome has its own “personality.” We just “Gnome” you want to know more, so we asked the artist to share this incredible experience in her own words. In the blog below, you’ll learn more about the work involved, Ms. Sakowski’s artistic history, and the step-by-step gnome creation process.

Inspired!? Don’t forget, you can take home a part of the show! Donate today and bring home your own gnome after the show closes May 12th.

Sweet Gnome Chicago was created by artists Zena Sakowski and Rob Kelly in cooperation with the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Sakowski and Kelly, who live in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, set up a workshop in their home, bought a kiln, and created all the gnomes for this project. The art was built from the ground up here in Chicago: from the creation of the pottery plaster gnome molds to hand pouring, bisque firing, and hand glazing over 400 gnomes. The giant, 15-foot gnome was sculpted from pink home insulation foam using a X-Acto knife.

It also took a village of creatives and amazing contributors to help create a community of excitement around this project.

The artists would like to thank:
  • Lincoln Park Conservatory staff and artistic contributors who brought this exhibition to life from growing the flowers a year in advance to installing the show.
  • Chicago Park District’s Culture, Arts, and Nature department, especially Assistant Director Peggy Stewart, who conceived this project and got Zena on board.
  • The South Shore Cultural Center, where Zena taught ceramic classes to adults and children and reignited her love of sculpting clay.
  • Sakowski and Kelly’s community of amazing friends, artists, and activists who jumped on board with excitement and glazed many of the gnomes (especially their Pilsen friends, Peggy Robinson, Rada (The Champ), and others).
  • The Lincoln Park Cultural Center, where Zena now teaches woodworking classes. Zena’s teen class helped create the Blues Brothers car. The entire staff at Lincoln Park is thanked for their support and encouragement.

Zena Sakowski w/ Docent Cheryl Cesario

Artists Biography

Zena Sakowski and Rob Kelly have collaborated on art since the early 90s, having met as undergraduates at the University of Manitoba’s School of Art in Winnipeg. Zena first moved to Chicago in the late 90s to study in the Department of Visual Arts at University of Chicago, where she was awarded an MFA. Rob moved to join her after receiving his Master’s degree from the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. Their work has appeared in galleries and museums internationally. 

Gnome Creation Process

Five molds of various sizes were made with pottery plaster.

After the molds are made a slip (a milkshake-like liquid) is poured into the molds.

The liquid slip stays in the mold for approximately 20-45 minutes to set and thicken. After the liquid is set then the slip is poured out of the mold. The slip then has to sit to harden, which can take one or two hours, depending on the size of the mold.

Once the slip has hardened enough, the mold is opened and the gnome is taken out.

This is a fragile stage and the raw slip is not completely solid yet. It must be absolutely dry before being put in the kiln. This drying stage takes three to five days before all the moisture is absorbed then the first firing in the kiln can be done.

The kiln is set for a low fire, which will reach a heat of 1833 degrees Fahrenheit firing over an eight hour period. Once the firing is complete, the kiln is left closed overnight to cool down slowly before the gnomes can be taken out of the kiln.

Now that the gnomes are bisque-fired they can be glazed. The larger gnomes took time to glaze as usually you have to paint at least three to four layers of glaze plus a clear overlay glaze so the color is intense and brush marks are not severe. This is like a chemistry experiment, because the colors before baking are sometimes not exactly the same after baking.

Once completely glazed the kiln is set again at low firing heat for another six to eight hour firing. Then the excitement is opening up the kiln the next day and seeing the gnomes in all their final colors.

Gnomes then were packaged and delivered to the Lincoln Park Conservatory for display. The large gnomes were mostly packed with their head and body separate and were glued together at the Conservatory.

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