“I hope it doesn’t snow,” my mom said.

She was thinking about gnomes. More specifically, gnome homes.

“We put one of my houses outside then it poured for two days,” she said. “Everything started to slip.”

For the past five years, my mom, Andra Chase, has joined a group of fellow artists each fall to create the Gnome Villages installation at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. The volunteers work in a chilly warehouse on the Arboretum grounds, sometimes vying for space with other special events.

“I spent so much time gluing on all that moss,” Mom said. “They’re going to auction that house this year…”

Even though gnome homes are meant to be displayed outdoors, the installation’s opening night was still weeks away, and Mom wanted her creation to retain its wow factor.

The gnome home creators collaborate on their projects, which are much more than the cute fairy houses you might expect (no actual gnomes or fairies appear). That may have something to do with the fact that the artists are professionals, some long-time painter-illustrators like my mom, some former Hallmarkers, as Mom calls them. (Watch a video of the artists in their atelier.)

I’ve never seen the gnome home display as it’s meant to be seen—at nighttime just after Thanksgiving, sparkling with lights. But I’ve visited in daylight and witnessed the plumes of dried grasses, gnarled roots, tiny doors and cheery rooms in the whimsical homes built into tree stumps. It’s clear that good-natured competition fuels the work. Even after the homes have spent months outdoors, you can still see each artist’s singular style and vision—natural, sculptural, dramatic or all of the above.

My mom is 80 now. She’s been a widow since 2004, and in these later years her drive to create has only grown stronger. One of her watercolors recently won third place at a big-time exhibition in Wichita. This summer, she drove with another octogenarian artist to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a plein air painting workshop, and she’s talking about another painting trip to Greece. I’m scheming to inspire her to come to Indiana to compete in a plein-air painting event at the T.C. Steele Historic Site this spring.

Mom’s drive to create is the fire that keeps her going. I admire her so much for who she is and all she does.