Petaluma, Calif.-based artist and master prop builder Shawn Thorsson is best known for his jaw-dropping costumes, like the 8-foot-tall Warhammer 40K Space Marines that have graced the cover of MAKE Volume 32 and have been spreading awe the last couple of years at Maker Faire Bay Area. He’s currently in the midst of doing a blog/video series for us detailing his build of the life size replica of Robocop’s ED-209 he’s bringing to this year’s Faire. Badass costumes aside, Thorsson is also known for his Combat Garden Gnomes. Yup, gnomes with weapons because as he puts it, “In the world of garden warfare, anything can happen.”
1. What motivated you to make garden gnomes?
Back when I came up with the idea, I was still making my living as a navigator on cargo ships, and the costume and prop-making thing was just a hobby — an expensive hobby. So I’d been trying to think up a way to use the tools and materials that were going into the hobby to offset the costs of the tools and materials that were going into the hobby.
I’m not sure exactly how I’d hit upon the notion of making gnomes in particular, but after doing a bit of research I was surprised by how much people were willing to spend on unique, well-made garden gnomes.
2. How did the gnomes end up going into combat mode?
The biggest challenge with garden gnomes was coming up with something that hadn’t been done already. I brainstormed a couple dozen variations on the garden gnome theme and started doodling up some thumbnail sketches to work from.
At the time I was out at sea with no internet connection, so I had to wait until I got home before I could do any real research. That’s when I found out that most of my other seemingly original ideas had actually already been invented. A cursory search found garden gnomes with suits of armor and dressed up as ninjas and making lewd gestures.
Out of all of my concepts, the only one I couldn’t find somewhere on the internet was a mashup between garden gnomes and the little green plastic army man figures. I was surprised since those poses are pretty ubiquitous, and the toys dated back to the Vietnam War era. But since nobody had beaten me to it, I was happy to fill that very little niche in the garden gnome world.
3. How many styles have you created so far?
A couple of months back I sat down on a whim and sculpted the first female combat garden gnome. She’s the thirteenth variation I’ve made and she’s posed in the same standing shooting position as the very first gnome rifleman I sculpted.
Aside from those two, there’s a kneeling rifleman (which I’ve recently re-sculpted to alter a few details and improve his facial expression), a prone rifleman, a grenade-throwing gnome, a rocket-launcher-toting gnome, an officer with a pistol, the flamethrower gnome, minesweeper gnome with metal detector, the heavy-machine gunner gnome, the bayonet attack gnome, radio gnome, and the mortar launcher gnome.
4. What are the challenges that come with crafting each new style?
The biggest challenge is making sure that each one has some unique personality. Since the poses are already established, most of the sculpt involves making sure that they have all of the integral characteristics of garden gnomes (pointed hats, funny beards, pot bellies, etc.).
I try to save the face and hair for last because that’s the part that really brings the sculpt to life. If I make the mistake of giving them an expressive face before the rest of the sculpt is done, they get a deceptively finished feel and it’ll take weeks to get around to adding the folds in their pants or the soles of their boots.
5. What are the gnomes’ weapons made out of?
The weapons are made out of the same urethane resin that the rest of the gnomes are cast in. The only real difference in the process is that instead of sculpting the prototypes in clay, I usually have Jarvis (my 3D printer has a name) print them out for me. He’s pretty good at mechanical shapes, so it’s really just a question of getting the scale right or maybe making the proportions a little cartoonish.
6. What types of reactions have your received and what are a couple of your favorites?
I get all sorts of reactions ranging from mild amusement to abject horror. Usually I’ll get emails from customers who write something like “my Uncle Jim is a gun nut who hates Aunt Jenny’s garden gnomes and Aunt Jenny is an avid gnome collector who hates Uncle Jim’s guns. I’m so glad someone’s finally made the perfect gift for both of them.”
The really odd reaction, which I never anticipated, was the way in which a lot of people have incorporated them into various political agendas. I get occasional angry emails from folks on both sides of the gun control debate who are upset by whatever statements they think I’m trying to make.
Before I sculpted the first female one, I’d get emails accusing me of all sorts of misogynistic things. It’s funny to me because there really was never any kind of social or political commentary intended. They’re garden gnomes. If you’re doing anything other than laughing at them, you’re doing it wrong.
7. Any new developments in the works?
I had a customer a while back suggest that I should start making Kama Sutra garden gnomes, but I don’t think I’ll be going down that path. Instead, I’ve got a sketchbook full of doodles just waiting to be sculpted. There’s at least another dozen or so poses before I run out of little green plastic army men, and I still need to make a few more females as well.
Somewhere along the way I’m going to have to make some gophers in foxholes with machine guns and sandbags just so the gnomes will have enemies of some sort. Maybe throw in some squirrel shock troops and a raccoon recon force just to mix things up a bit. In the world of garden warfare, anything can happen.