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Dr. Tom Clark

Clark’s Woodspirits of Davidson


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 world-renowned creations.

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 Aberdeen.

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 appeal.

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 paint schemes.

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 bit happier.

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.'

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