LAFAYETTE -- A gnome is defined as a "legendary dwarfish creature that guards the earth's treasures underground," and the gnomes that Carey Carpenter crafts are just that -- an homage to her love of nature.
Inspired by a mother who was an artist, Carpenter -- who majored in art in college -- brought a love of crafts to the students she taught at Happy Valley Elementary School. Carpenter remembered her mother making "Mr. Peanut" crafts, fashioned after the Planters peanuts mascot.
"Mom would take whole peanut shells and pipe cleaners for arms and legs," said Carpenter, a Lafayette native. "That's where the blueprint for my work came from."
The artist's nature-inspired gnomes are part of the monthly exhibit this month at the Orinda Library Gallery, which also features other local artists.
Carpenter got the idea for her gnomes close to five years ago, while on a nature walk.
"I was inspired by these acorn tops I found and thought, 'What can I make out of these?' " the Acalanes High School grad said.
Then remembering her childhood "Mr. Peanut" crafts project, Carpenter set out to work on making characters out of the acorn tops that soon grew from free-standing pieces to all-out nature vignettes that each tell a story. Those stories, Carpenter said, are up to the viewer's imagination.
While acorn tops are still the foundation to each piece, Carpenter has gradually added more material, including silk flowers and vintage craftware to her gnome vignettes. The scenes she created for each piece were also inspired by dollhouses filled with such trinkets as miniature teacups, furniture and books "to add more whimsy to each piece and to make them more fun," she said.
"All these pieces come together in this magical mix that comes to life," she said. "It's almost like you can picture yourself being a part of their world for a minute or two."
The gnome vignettes are three-dimensional and quite animated, she said.
"A viewer can begin to tell a story while they're looking at it. I want this exhibit to bring together generations -- children with their parents and grandparents. I plan to have a stool there so children can see and enjoy every little detail."
The artist, who used to do more fine art painting in college, shared her love of crafts with her children as well as her students during the time she taught at Happy Valley elementary. She said she believes art isn't just formal, it's accessible and that art can be done by anyone.
Now, Carpenter continues to instill a love of arts and crafts to her children whom she raised in the same house she was raised in.
Sadly, Carpenter's childhood home was burned in a recent fire, and some of her gnomes were destroyed. She was able to able repair some of the gnomes she now refers to as "survivors," because of the hope and resilience they represent.
Carpenter is grateful for photographer Juleen Lapporte, who had brought a number of the gnomes to her home to be photographed.
Added Lapporte, "Carey's gnomes are packed with miniature detail and playful creativity.
While photographing several of the vignettes in a park, quite a crowd gathered to get a peak at these fanciful gnomes.
The gnomes are so appealing, because each tiny vignette creates a sense of belonging and community.
"The use of natural elements is both tranquil and charming while inspiring the imagination," Lapporte added.
While Carpenter said she and her family hope to rebuild their home in the same Lafayette location, she will continue making gnomes, not just because they're fun but because of the deeper meaning of life they represent.
More than whimsical vignettes, the gnomes are a story of survival, faith, resilience and of a community coming together to support one another.
"The gnomes make me happy, and I want to create a model for my children to learn about hope, healing and moving on," Carpenter said.
"There's hope for the future. You've got to keep doing the things that make you happy."