The Gnomes of Shawnee
Updated: Jan 7
Shawnee, Oklahoma is a town with a long and storied history, but some of its most interesting little details are only a few years in the making! Take, for instance, the curious case of the gnomes that quietly appeared on utility poles and other fixtures in downtown Shawnee at some point after 2015.
You might happen across one of these little gnomes by accident and think nothing of it, but you'll be surprised to find them scattered throughout our town! Painted on small pieces of repurposed wood and screwed to fixtures close to the ground, they're easy to miss, but it's hard to stop finding them once you know they're there. What's more, there are reports of gnome sightings across the Sooner State. The little people stand watch from Stillwater to Bricktown and even as far as Wichita Falls!
So, who's responsible for these cute little invaders, anyways? Well, their story begins a long way away from here. While living in San Francisco, a new artist stumbled across a utility pole with an iris flower painted on it. The display stuck with him, and when he moved to Oakland a few years later, he decided to begin his own project.
Inspired by the lawn ornaments he remembered from his childhood, he would paint gnomes, mushrooms, and other accompanying characters and hide them in public places across the Californian city. By the time his work was done, enthusiasts estimate he had hidden over 2,300. Other estimates suggest he distributed as many as 7,000 in the area. Regardless of the exact count, Oakland was charmed, and the gnomes became a part of local culture, providing a soft comic relief to a community historically blighted by gang violence and social unrest.
That isn't to say everybody was instantly taken by the gnomes, however. A local power company, the same one responsible for the utility poles, voiced concern that the gnomes would get in the way of their maintenance workers. When the company announced that they would be removing the gnomes, the overwhelming and unanimous outcry from the local community was sufficient enough to make them change their minds. The gnomes are still around in Oakland after all these years.
Since then, the artist (who has intentionally maintained his anonymity) has moved to Lawton, Oklahoma, where he's continued in his efforts to charm his neighbors, both near and far, one tiny gnome at a time. The artist runs a Facebook page where people inevitably end up after finding his gnomes; there, they post photographs of the gnomes, mushrooms, storks and more that they come across in their hometowns and local spaces. A community has formed around tracking down these gnomes, and the artist responds, pleased to have been able to make a difference.
If the feedback on the artist's Facebook page is anything to go from, many of the gnomes in Shawnee have either gone undocumented or completely undiscovered. If it helps, the artist has expressed that he likes to focus on historical downtown areas, to encourage exploration and development in those areas. The next time you visit, keep your eyes close to the ground – you may be among the first to notice some the artist's work!
UPDATE, as of 3.15: I was surprised this morning to receive a message from the artist himself! He said I missed one crucial detail in my research: that, "when out putting up gnomes, I always wear a pair of Round House carpenter's overalls," which are manufactured here in Shawnee! He included a photograph of three gnomes resting on said overalls. He also provided a tip to any potential gnome hunters: check all of the telephone poles, and look around the old campus of St. Gregory's. Thank you for your correspondence, anonymous artist!