If you’ve visited any parks around the Key Peninsula lately, you may have noticed the appearance of uniquely painted garden gnomes. The first community-wide Summer Solstice Gnome Hunt began with more than 200 hand-painted garden gnomes strategically hidden around Gateway Park, 360 Trails, Volunteer Park and Home Park. The peninsula-wide scavenger hunt involved the entire community, from the conception and creation of the ceramic gnomes to the final turnout for the hunt June 22.
Garden gnomes are a novelty of Pacific Northwest lore and a signature piece for local artist Megan Schowalter, who teamed up with Tracey Perkosky, the executive director of Key Peninsula Metro Parks. Schowalter, who is also a teacher at Key Peninsula Middle School, had been looking to foster a community art project when she met Perkosky at the annual Key Center Art Walk in 2022. Perkosky had an idea about hiding items throughout the parks to entice visitors. Together, the two came up with the idea for the Summer Solstice Gnome Hunt.
“I could really see how my students and families might get excited about making Garden Gnomes,” Scholwater said. “They invited a sense of playfulness and fun into any classroom.”
Once the gnomes were formed and bisque-fired, Schowalter partnered with KPMS art teacher Richard Miller to enlist local students to hand-paint and decorate the gnomes.
“This was important to me because it is a learning opportunity for our students to work with ceramic forms and I wanted to establish a connection between KP Parks and our school district,” Schowalter said. “It also made it a more personal experience for students and their families. They can feel a part of the project tradition.”
Schowalter and Perkosky also partnered with Kellie Bennett, executive director of the Red Barn Youth Center to offer students of its after-school program an opportunity to contribute by painting the gnomes.
The Red Barn in Key Center is a safe place for kids from sixth grade to senior year to go after school or in the summer and offers anything from sports, board games and art projects to community service opportunities and help with homework.
“We have three field trips in the park that we’ll be doing this summer with our youths,” Bennett said. “We’ll hopefully encourage them to look for the gnomes if there are still any out there,”
Key Pen Parks staff made sure to discuss where the gnomes would be hidden beforehand in the interest of public safety. The gnomes were relatively accessible to the public and visible though secreted along the nature trails.
Tabitha Black, an event attendee who learned about the gnome hunt online, was fortunate enough to have found two garden gnomes while hunting with her daughter.
“It gives us something fun to do together, promotes a healthy activity … it teaches kindness and good, honest competition,” Black said. “It’s always great to see the community out and about in local parks, everyone — young and old — is so friendly, even though we’re hunting for the same things. We lucked out and actually found two gnomes, both beautifully made. We kept the purple one and re-hid the ‘peace’ one.”
“It’s all part of the fun … I honestly don’t know how many of them still may be out there,” Perkosky said.
Overall, the event was a success in achieving its goal of encouraging community members to get out and explore local parks.
“The parks were full of people that day, there was just such an amazing energy of watching people come into the parks at all hours, looking for gnomes,” Perkosky said. “You could see them peering around and kind of looking all over. Especially the kids, when they found them … they would cup their hands together and cradle the gnome and carry it so carefully. And just to see their smiles.”
All parties involved hope to continue the Summer Solstice Gnome Hunt annually as a mystical, fun way to interact with nature and take into consideration the care of local parks.
“The intention behind this project was to be able to get out and enjoy our parks,” Perkosky said. “Perhaps to explore a park that maybe you’ve never been to before or a trail you’d never been to before. And to be able to take home a little reminder about the joys of being outdoors and the importance of taking care of our parklands because, ideally, those little gnomes need good homes. And if we take care of our parks, all the gnomes will have homes.”
To see more or share your own experience, use the hashtag #kppgnomehunt or the tag @keypen_parks on Instagram and @keypenparks on Facebook.
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