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The Painted Gnomes of Oakland

Miniature paintings of gnomes have been appearing at the base of telephone poles on the sidewalks of Oakland, east of Lake Merritt:

There are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of these crude but adorable little artworks, none of them taller than about 6 inches. They began their occupation a few months ago, but seem to have been reproducing at a rapid rate lately, or maybe I’ve just become more used to looking for them.

I noted a few years ago that an unexpected bit of music can brighten a day, if we can shake ourselves out of our stupor enough to listen for it. Street art, at its best, can make us stop short with a childlike delight that the familiar world contains something fresh and new.

These whimsical gnomes offer yet another occasion for pointing out how much we miss if all our transit time is spent inside a car, separated from the sights and sounds of the cityscape—not to mention other people—by a barrier of steel and glass, and largely unaware of anything except the road directly in front of our windshield. Even for pedestrians, though, these works of guerrilla art are easy to miss, being so small and low and placed at junctions so commonplace that we never think to look there. I probably walked by some of these many times before I realized they were there. (I rely on my dog to notify me of anything interesting less than a foot off the ground, but her formidable nose never alerted me to these paintings. Bad dog!)

I have no idea whose brainchild these are, but people interested in seeing them can find them lining various streets east of Lake Merritt, on the low hills between East 18th Street and MacArthur Boulevard. There may well be others farther afield, but the neighborhoods between Park Blvd and the lake happen to be where I do most of my walking. I could list some of the specific streets where these fellows reside, but that would spoil it; a lot of the fun is in the finding.

I originally set out to photograph every gnome I came upon, but soon gave up on that goal when I realized how many there were. I collected these and a handful of other photos in an album on Google+.