Clark’s Woodspirits of Davidson
JOHN CRAWFORD ‘20
Tom Clark’s gnomes. called Woodspirits, on display
in John’s home. Photo by Margaret Crawford.
Long before Davidson’s downtown was graced with the
top-10 nationwide restaurant, Kindred, 131 North Main Street was home to a
collection of gnomes known all over the world. These creatures, called
Woodspirits, are charming, personal little beings, many modeled after people
once known around campus. Many of us unlucky enough to have come to Davidson
after the museum closed in 2012 will never have seen one of Dr. Tom Clark’s
My family has always had Tom Clark gnomes around our house. He was a close
friend of my grandparents, who lived with him as he and my grandfather both
studied theology in Scotland. His religious background may surprise people, as
he is most famous for his art. However, he first studied at Davidson as an
English major, graduating in the class of 1949, before continuing his
post-secondary education in theology at Union Theological Seminary and the
University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
After getting his Ph.D., Clark became a religion professor at Davidson. Still,
art remained a favorite hobby that he always engaged in. With the resources of
the college, he was able to explore it further. He began creating busts of
individuals he knew, though sadly only a few can still be found. One, a statue
of one of his Ph.D. professors, is still on display at the University of
With his interest in art blossoming, Clark began to teach classes on Christian
art for the Art Department. My aunt, Katherine Jennings, took this class during
her time at Davidson. She said that students found him so funny, “like attending
the Tonight Show,” that the course was always quickly filled.
But it was 1978 before Clark began to create the gnomes for which he is most
known. Two years before, Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet published a book of
gnome drawings. Clark found them fascinating and decided to try to bring one to
life. Soon after, people began expressing interest in having their own gnomes.
Another Davidson alumnus, Joe Poteat, helped launch and market the business,
named Cairn Studios after the Scottish word for “a man-made pile of stones.”
It was not long before Cairn Studios began to expand, and Clark began to travel
nearly every weekend, visiting places all around the country and even the world
to promote his art. As he traveled, he sometimes liked to take a gnome with him
to hide, inscribed with a special message that the lucky person who found it
could then call into Cairn Studios to register. However, not all trips were as
fun for him. Despite preferring to work in isolation, he once agreed to be
placed on a platform in Ginza, a large shopping square in Tokyo, to demonstrate
to passersby how he created his gnomes.
Clark had a lot of travel experience even before his Woodspirits took off. In
Aberdeen, he lived with my grandparents, Randy and Arline Taylor, and another
friend, Charles Turner. During the week, the three men would read for their
classes every morning, and then all four of them would discuss what they had
learned during lunch. But Clark was in the fortunate position to be able to
travel all around Europe during his weekends. He would bring back many rolls of
film of things he saw to show the others, in the process introducing them to
many works of art they otherwise would never have seen.
Cairn Studios was making millions in revenue every year, and Poteat once bragged
to Business North Carolina that there were dealers “in every county in every
state in the nation.” Clark ultimately retired from teaching at Davidson to work
full time on his art, and sales only expanded. Clark and Poteat’s company grew
and eventually had a staff of hundreds of people working on faithfully
reproducing each one of Clark’s creations for sale.
Tom Clark gnomes usually cost between $20 and $60 when sold new, while the
collector’s market flourished as well. Clark gave each statue a name and a story
and surreptitiously placed a coin somewhere on it. Each one would have multiple
paint schemes, though Clark ensured that colors maintained a similar aesthetic
With their antique look, the Woodspirits became very popular among collectors.
Among Clark’s many fans, some of the most famous were best-selling author
Stephen King, actor Bob Newhart, and former first lady Barbara Bush. Avid
collectors were even known to collect multiples of the same gnome with different
While in his nineties today and no longer making gnomes, Tom Clark’s art is
still a staple in many homes. His art touched countless people over the decades
he was working. Often compared to Norman Rockwell, the legendary American
illustrator, for the personal stories every piece contained, Clark has remained
humble throughout his life. He may not have quite the notoriety of Steph Curry
or Woodrow Wilson, but Clark is a Davidson graduate of whom we can be proud, a
man who heartened our whole community and made many people’s lives just a little
Editors Note: His own ancestors were all
farmers, originating in Scotland and immigrating to southeastern North Carolina
a few centuries ago.
From a contributor...
I learned from him that he had worked with a group
of students, or ministers, on restoring the abbey at Iona in the 1950s. He had
brought a number of pieces of glass which were found and had them put into a
chimney built in his home in Davidson. He later had a barn in Scotland
dismantled and brought over from Scotland and reconstructed to be his present
home, and had to leave the chimney behind. I could see the sadness and
wistfulness in his face as he described leaving them there, but then said some
words to the effect, 'they are but material things.'