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“Behind the pristine grounds of Rock City Gardens, nestled between the Lookout Mountain tourist attraction’s storage units and rock outcroppings, is a nondescript brick building with paint-smeared concrete-slab floor.
Only the purposeful stride of a four-foot gnome airbrushed on the metal door gives any indication of the workspace’s importance.
Inside, a ring of gnarled gnomes in all sizes sit along the ceiling’s exposed beams. Their feet dangle above a large table where a pint-sized patient with multiple fractures waits for treatment.
This is the studio of Matthew Dutton. It’s nicknamed the “Gnome Infirmary,” and the doctor is in.
The tiny gnome’s abrasions will be cleaned and his broken arm and leg stabilized with metal rods, much like an orthopedist would use. After his fractures are closed with epoxy putty, the patient will get a good sanding, have a new coat of paint prescribed, and be sent out looking much younger than his 60 years.
Dutton is the art specialist at Rock City Gardens. His job is to repair and rehab the old-world garden gnomes that frolic along the attraction’s paths and in Fairyland Caverns. The sculptor, who has worked at Rock City for three years, has also added more than a dozen of his own gnome creations to the little people population.
Additionally, Dutton and a team set the stage for Rock City’s special events. For this weekend’s Shamrock City, the crew built a four-foot shamrock to welcome visitors, painted photo-op props and dressed Rock City’s performance area with ceiling banners.
“Every day I deal with something completely different. It’s the most fun to me when I get to create something from nothing, when I get to use my imagination,” says Dutton.
Begun by Garnet and Frieda Carter, Rock City capitalizes on Chattanooga’s natural beauty with its trail winding among unusual rock formations leading to Lover’s Leap scenic overlook. Frieda Carter collected wildflowers and other plants that she transplanted into her big rock garden, according to Rock City records. She also imported German-made statues of gnomes and famous fairytale characters that she placed throughout the gardens.
These old-world European gnomes are made of plaster, which Dutton points out, is water-soluble. So, over time, weather conditions take their toll.
“They are hollow, very heavy and very brittle. Moisture softens them up. They’ll become pitted. Eventually arms fall off and they look like little zombie gnomes,” he jokes.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a bachelor’s of fine art degree in sculpting, Dutton worked as a studio assistant for a who’s who of Chattanooga artists: Terry Cannon, John Petrey, Jan Chenoweth and Roger Halligan.
The diversity of skill sets he built with them helped land the gnome doctor job.
“His interest and knowledge with casting is one of the things that made him stand out when he was hired,” says Kim Jackson, special events coordinator for Rock City Gardens. “It continues to be a wonderful asset as he learns new techniques and works to bring gnomes and fairytale characters back to life.”
As Dutton doctors a gnome, he takes pictures of each step in the process so he can repaint the gnome to match its original design and also to create a easy-to-follow reference guide for future repairs. He’s learned firsthand the importance of photo documentation, having recreated more than one gnome scene on the grounds working from photos.
“I work from old postcards and snapshots to see how a gnome originally looked. There are tons of old-timey postcards I’ve found,” he explains. “So sometimes I’ll find a gnome that I’ve seen on a postcard and find what colors he was. My goal is to keep it looking as it originally was. I don’t want to change, I want to preserve.
“Photos are all I have to go by. If I know a particular guy (gnome) was in this scene in these colors, I try to put him back that way. I clean him up, fill him with expanding foam so it creates a core and (when possible) put steel rods inside him to give him some strength so he can’t just break off.
“Then I’ll join everything with urethane resin or epoxy putty, sand it to get the flaking paint off, prime him with an oil-based primer and paint the original colors.”
Jeff Raabe, director of operations for Rock City Gardens, says Dutton’s skills are critical to keeping the magical atmosphere at the attraction.
“Matt’s skills allow Rock City to not only offer our guests a beautiful place, but a fun place as well,” Raabe says.
Even when not rehabbing gnomes, Dutton still dabbles in a world of fantasy people.
His personal creations, known as Phigments, are a surreal combination of cherub faces on animal bodies. He will be showing this collection at the 4 Bridges Arts Festival in First Tennessee Pavilion on April 12-14.”
Photo credit: Connor Choate via Times Free Press