Picture this: You’re walking through the campground and spot a miniature ceramic gnome perched in the corner on a fence post.
These hand-crafted creatures were scattered throughout Winklepleck Grove Campground during uCamp, the annual teardrop trailer rally. Flipping over the figurine, the bottom instructed the finder to post a photo of the gnome on social media using #travelinggnome2023. The uCamp Facebook group was flooded with photos of these funny little gnomes during the event.
But where did these mysterious traveling gnomes come from? Potter Dave Henry, who owners Mud Man Ceramics in Westerville, OH, came up with the idea. His creations were a perfect blend of art and adventure, as uCampers joined the search for the gnomes with enthusiasm.
“I found a similar gnome online and thought that would be really great if I could make a bunch and hide them around for folks to find,” Dave explained.
A fun-filled treasure hunt
Campers were invited to embark on a treasure hunt, tracking down these whimsical wanderers and carrying them away as keepsakes of their uCamp adventure. Even uCamp team members found a gnome sitting on the hood of one of their golf carts. The team was thrilled to find one of the gnomes.
This isn’t the first time Dave has set his gnomes free for others to find, he said, adding he does this in his hometown. The idea is similar to the painted rock trend, which grew in popularity in 2018. The goal of the painted rocks were to spread kindness and joy.
From mugs to gnomes
The tiny statues start out as mug handles, which he then turns into gnomes weighing about one ounce and roughly the size of a golf ball. But the gnomes aren’t the only creations that come out of his studio. He estimates he makes a couple thousand mugs a year, which is one of his most requested itens, He also makes other functional wares such as bowls and tea sets.
His heart and love of pottery truly lies in the unqiue, one-of-a-kind pieces he creates for himself.
“For the most part, I don’t sell those. Who knows, when I step off this planet, maybe someone will find a vase and wonder who the heck was Mud Man!” he said.
Creating the mugs and other items are a week-long process from inception to completion. Each piece takes 30 to 60 minutes to make, then another week to fire and glaze, he said. Then the pieces make their way out into the world — some sold at Pure Roots Boutique in Westerville and others at art festivals.
An artistic journey
Dave’s artistic journey might seem like a straight path, but it’s a tale filled with twists and turns. He initially delved into pottery at the Columbus College of Art and Design but traded clay for a camera, joining the Navy as a photographer.
“I got a bad case of wanderlust and saw the Navy as a chance to see the world,” Henry said, adding he was not disappointed by his decision.
After a decade behind the lens, family life beckoned, leading him to a 20-year career as a safety coordinator.
Finally, retirement brought him full circle, back to the pottery wheel. “I couldn’t be happier. Pottery is about the most relaxing thing you could do,” he said.
In one of his videos on his Mud Man Ceramics YouTube channel, he referred to the “serendipity of pottery,” which he explained as the happy “accidents” that result in unique pieces.
“I like to make pottery. However, to make the same thing over and over again would kill me,” he explained. “My pottery is random. No two are alike. If the glaze runs the wrong way or the pot ends up a little wonky, then so be it. It’s one of a kind.”
When he’s not in his studio, he and his wife travel as often as they can in their 2021 TAB 320, sometimes joined by his brother and his wife in their 2018 TAB 320. And of course, he attends uCamp whenever possible.
Dave’s wisdom for those approaching retirement is simple yet profound: “Don’t spend all your golden years working. Find out what makes you happy. And don’t run from failure, embrace it.”