Helen and Charlie Sharpe are used to gawks, the sound of tires screeching and strangers constantly knocking at their door.
The reason? Their picturesque garden—chock-full of statues, sanctuaries, figurines and yes, a colony of gnomes.
“We’ve gotten used to it,” Helen says, standing by her stoop.
“I’ll tell you what: we know that we brought some enjoyment to people,” Charlie says, adding that sometimes people come in by the busload to tour their yard, prompted by institutions like the Museum of International Folk Art.
“You’d be surprised how many people we’ve met from all over the world,” Helen says.
The pair, on the verge of celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, met when Helen was working as a waitress in a coffee bar. Her strapping “Tunnie,” as she calls him, worked as a house painter.
“Before you knew it, we were getting married. It just happened in less than a year. You know, it’s amazing how things work out,” Helen reminisces.
Soon after, they moved to their house on the 1700 block of Agua Fria Street.
Years later, a driver speeding on the winding road lost control of his car, veered across both a neighbor’s and the Sharpes’ fence and somehow stopped just before crashing into the bedroom where their 10-year-old son was sleeping.
“His bed was right there,” Charlie says, pointing at the street-facing wall.
“Our house is made of adobe,” Helen points out. “If [the driver had] knocked that wall down, very likely, [our son] would have probably been dead.”
No one could explain how the miracle happened, but Helen knew. Months earlier, she had placed a statue of the Virgin Mary, the first non-plant object in her yard, just outside her son’s window, and She had saved him.
“[People] said, ‘Actually, we don’t know how it missed your house, other than'—they made the remark—this Blessed Mother,'” Charlie recalls. “I told my wife, I says, ‘I’m not overly religious, but somebody’s looking out for us.’”
The following morning, the couple decided to get the Madonna some company. They never quite stopped.
“We didn’t start out to have anything like this. It just snowballed,” Charlie says, admiring his yard.
“Numbers—we don’t keep,” he says of the tchotchkes in their ever-expanding collection, mentioning that he has “a thinking problem” and it’s Helen who knows every piece’s background story.
Their private home has become something of a tourist attraction. Some people have left offerings as if it were some sort of lawn ornament shrine. In one case, Helen says, an undocumented worker, unable to visit Mexico for his mother’s funeral, came to borrow one of their statues so he could stage a local wake.
“Look around the yard and you’ll notice that it’s not all religious stuff,” Charlie says. “I mean there’s a little bit of anything and everything.”
Bits like a tribute to their fallen Shih Tzu named Beethoven; a “nudie corner” featuring curvaceous, plaster-skinned beauties; a full tribe of Native Americans; and a statue of a little boy on a bicycle that celebrates the birth of their great-grandson Elliot—his back turned to the nudie, natch.
Signs advise visitors to watch their step on the uneven ground, while others proclaim it “Helen’s Garden.” A special one reads: “The love of this garden reflects the love of Helen’s beauty.”
“That’s my husband for you,” she says, blushing.
Upkeep, it turns out, has become a full-time job for Helen, who repaints each figure—down to custom mani’s and pedi’s—twice a year.
“This is an artist right here,” Tunnie says, hugging his wife. “A real artist!”
“It’s a hobby, you know,” a modest Helen responds.
But the reflections of Helen’s beauty have also attracted sticky-fingered visitors.
This summer, the couple experienced a few thefts. One of the stolen items, a depiction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, really hit home.
“How could anybody steal a saint and get any enjoyment from it?” Charlie says. “Now, I don’t care if they dig it out and get $1,000 or whatever, they’re not gonna duke us.”
The couple picked up where they left off, and threw in a rudimentary anti-theft device on each statue—a wire loop around the base, secured to the ground by a nail.
They plan to keep on ’til “we can’t move no longer, I suppose,” Helen laughs, mentioning that her main motivator is “the thrill of meeting so many good people because, for the most part, this world has a lot of good people.”
Her advice for folks who might want to start their own extreme display?
“Just go ahead and do whatever turns you on. Go with it and it’ll work…at least it has beautifully for us, anyway.”
Witness the whimsy of the Sharpe's garden bellow: