OAKLAND -- It's easier to catch a gnome than you think. Especially if you're in the right spot in Oakland these days.
Whimsical painted gnomes have been cropping up in neighborhoods near Lake Merritt. Yes, hundreds of little men in pointy hats and boots, painted on pieces of wood and then affixed to utility poles and buildings in the area are delighting residents and annoying PG&E. So much so, that the utility plans to remove the gnomes from its property -- and the mysterious artist who created them is stepping in to help relocate his work.
The hand-painted miniportraits, which began popping up last year, are often screwed to the base of utility poles, while others can be spotted outside the front doors of local businesses just off Merritt Boulevard. The tiny creatures painted on pieces of 6-inch blocks of wood wear red hats, white beards and brown boots. Some are accompanied by a mushroom.
More than 2,000 gnomes are hanging around the area -- many of them on PG&E utility poles, said Jason King, spokesman for the agency. The utility says it will remove the small pieces of art from its poles so others don't repeat the pattern with other objects that could jeopardize the integrity of the equipment.
But some residents aren't taking too kindly to PG&E's plans to evict the happy little fellows.
"They're quirky," said Trisha Mallicoat, 31, of Oakland, as she stared at a gnome screwed into a utility pole at Wesley and Wayne avenues. "A harmless creative outlet that makes Oakland funky."
Francis Heath, a local real estate broker, said they are mysterious, cute creatures that don't bother anyone.
"We received an outpouring of support from the community today to save the gnomes, and that's what we're going to do," King said Monday. "People really enjoy them. We just need to find a more appropriate spot. Power poles are 'gnome-man's land,' so we want to find a place where people can enjoy them in their current neighborhood. They'll remain in place until we work with city officials and community groups to find them new homes."
He said the artist, who wishes to remain anonymous, contacted PG&E on Monday.
"He told us he has a map of the installation points and said he'd help us with moving them once we have a plan for where they will be relocated," King said.
The artist told the agency he began putting up the art in January 2012 to brighten the neighborhood.
One person surmised they have an even more benevolent purpose.
"Maybe they are there to protect the gardens in the area. Or maybe to protect the people of Oakland," said 46-year-old Oakland resident Day Pollini.
Garden gnomes do have a proud history as protectors of property, notes author Marcus B. Mennes, who wrote "The Garden Gnome Book."
Lawn and garden ornaments date back to the Roman period, Mennes wrote, and most of the early ornaments were religious in nature or meant to be guardians of the property.
"I think that was probably the incentive of the person who put them up," Pollini said.
Contact Natalie Neysa Alund at 510-293-2469. Follow her at Twitter.com/nataliealund.