When your garden needs a little walking dead, Zombie Gnomes artist is here to help

Is your garden looking sad and boring? Backyard in need of sprucing up? Want to add some thrills and chills to that mediocre front yard?

Fortunately, Jane DeRosa-Stever and her husband Chris are here with an unconventional solution to your humdrum garden blues. It’s a little bit R-rated, is guaranteed to get the neighbors talking, and involves a hefty helping of humor and gore.

The Stevers sell their famous Zombie Gnomes — a playful, gruesome twist on the classic garden gnome ornaments — out of their Etsy shop, ChrisandJanesPlace. You may have seen their clever, red-hatted, undead creations at WonderCon or horror conventions, where they get a lot of attention from fans of all ages, especially kids.

Jane’s background in theater and painting, along with her family legacy of animation and an internship at Disney’s vintage El Capitan Theatre was the perfect preparation for starting this unique business, which began as a joke of sorts but soon blossomed into a fun — and bloody — phenomenon.

She and Chris draw inspiration for their ghoulish designs from horror classics like “Evil Dead,” “Shaun of the Dead,” and “The Walking Dead” TV series, along with traditional folklore and gardening culture. They’ve even spun their hand-painted ornaments into a book, and there’s a sequel in the works.

I talked to Jane about Zombie Gnomes, her magical Disney childhood, and the zombie apocalypse. 

Jane DeRosa-Stever, her husband Chris, and their sons, Anthony and Liam, at Sequoia in 2017.

I read that Chris dreamed up the idea for Zombie Gnomes while stuck in traffic on the 210 Freeway. Tell me about the first Zombie Gnome you ever made. Chris’ practical effects skills and your theater painting skills were put to good use on this project.

The first Zombie Gnome that we made was Patient Zero, which Chris sculpted for his practical effects class and I painted it up for him. Chris developed a lot of his techniques for our business from that class, such as his sculpting, moldings, and casting.

When I started theatre at Azusa Pacific University, I got hired to paint up their sets, which I had done before in high school. I became head of the paint department by my senior year and occasionally I helped with color and texture design. Mostly, I painted sets and props, which was a lot of fun. One’s mind gets to wander, which is nice for a stressed out college student.

Jane and her husband, Chris, when they first started making Zombie Gnomes.

Zombie Gnomes started as a joke, but eventually became a serious business. When did you first realize there was a demand for such a thing?

When we started getting a lot of sales. I wish it was more magical than that.

Some of your pop culture inspirations for the gnomes are “Shaun of the Dead,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Evil Dead.” How have these horror favorites influenced your products?

Well, we enjoy all of those films and TV shows, so we wanted to make something not only that we would find entertaining but other fans would, too.

You’ve also drawn inspiration from folklore and “gardening culture.” In what ways?

When we first started making Zombie Gnomes, we based a lot of our sculptures off of gnome folklore. Gnomes are usually 6 1/2 inches tall and we used some similar color schemes for their designs. We do make larger ones now so people can show them off in their garden if they so desire.

In regards to gardening culture, we see what’s popular at gardening stores and get ideas of how our Zombie Gnomes could be incorporated. For example, pinwheels are a popular garden decoration. So we made a gnome that has a hole in her belly where you can put a pinwheel.

Zombie Gnomes are handmade and painted by local artists. Walk us through the process of designing and manufacturing a gnome.

So when we first started, it was just Chris and I. We did everything from designing to manufacturing to shipping. Then work got really crazy and we had to hire some local artists from the colleges in the area to paint. We were just starting out so we had no idea how to manage the huge amount of orders we were getting, so as time went on we made some changes in our production to be more efficient. Now we are able to handle all of our orders between the two of us now.

How do people generally react when they first encounter your Zombie Gnomes? They’re a little bit R-rated.

They laugh, actually, and usually say, “Zombie Gnomes.” My favorite reactions are when kids see them for the first time. Usually their eye bulge out and mouths drop. Some of them stay for a while just staring at them, saying, “Whoa!,” “Eww,” and things like that. It’s pretty great.

How would you describe your customer demographic? Do they tend to be horror fans?

Actually, no. We do have fans of horror who do buy our Zombie Gnomes but it’s really quite a variety of people who are interested in them. Some have gnome collections or have fairy gardens and want to add something funny to their collection. A majority of the people who purchase them think they are just really funny. To be honest, when we go to cons we see all different age groups gawking at our display.

You’ve said it can be “hard as a husband and wife team designing and creating fun products but we love doing it.” In what way is it challenging?

We spend almost every waking moment together and that can be trying. Not only do we work together, we also raise our kids together. So finding a balance between work and personal life can be challenging. We try very hard to have good communication.

We also have to find a way to be to firm but kind when critiquing each other’s work, which is difficult. It’s much harder than give notes to a co-worker or an employee. However, I actually feel more in love with Chris doing this with him. I saw how hardworking and dedicated he was and we worked so well together, marriage seemed plausible to me.

How would you describe your collaborative dynamic?

We respect each other’s opinions, which I think is a huge reason why we work so well together. Also, we think very similarly, so that helps.

Custom Zombie Gnomes.

You do custom and personalized gnomes. Tell me about some of your favorite custom orders. 

One of my favorite custom Zombie Gnomes was a woman asked us to make Zombie Gnomes taking down an owl. I had so much fun studying the coloring of different owls. I don’t get to spend a lot of time doing detail work so that was a nice change.

You’ve also branched out into literature with the book “Zombie Gnomes: The Epic Tale of Wyrick.” How did this idea come about?

It’s actually something we planned from the beginning. We thought giving the gnomes stories would be more enjoyable to our customers. Our line of thought was gnomes to books to TV show or movie. I was having trouble finding work when I graduated college and I realized if people didn’t give me the opportunity to create then I would just do it on my own. Also writing my own book was a life goal. So two birds, one stone.

I understand you’re working on a second book, “The Forging of Evelyn.” What can you tell us about it?

The first book is about Wyrick trying to find his family. The second book leads off from the end of the first where we actually meet Wyrick’s daughter, Evelyn. We follow her through her journey in the Zombie Gnome apocalypse.

You’re a bibliophile who collects a lot of books, so was it exciting to publish your first tome?

Very. As I said previously, it was a life dream to write and publish a book. It really hit me when I saw it in the first bookstore who started selling it, Dark Delicacies. I was really proud of myself that I actually did it. Of course I wouldn’t haven’t been able to do it without Chris or my mother who did the illustrations.

You also sell some non-zombie items in your shop. Tell me about some of your other products. 

We sell a variety of home and garden décor, such as our Easter Island Head Planter, our Cat Unicorn Head Mounts, and the Unicorn Skull. We just enjoy creating unique and fun things.

Jane at the Zombie Gnomes booth at Silicon Valley Comic Con.

You and Chris frequently take your Zombie Gnomes to conventions and other events. Tell me about some of your favorite places to rep your products. 

We mostly do comic book conventions like Wondercon and LA Comic Con, but we started branching out into horror conventions last year, which was great. People love them and we usually do very well at cons. I love doing all of the events especially because Chris and I try to make sure we go to at least one panel to learn something related to our craft.

Some serious artistry goes into your gnomes. You earned a degree in theater arts from Azusa Pacific University with a focus on storytelling. How did this prepare you for what you’re doing now?

Well, first off, thank you for that compliment. I did get my BA in Theatre Arts hoping to get into directing and writing. Being that the programs for either of those were not fleshed out yet, I tried to learn as much as I could. I auditioned for plays and wrote my own monologues. I even wrote a one-act for my senior project.

Really, I was just trying to be a sponge and soak up as much as I could while I was there. I stage managed, worked on sets, and so on. I think it really prepared me for what I do now because it’s a constant learning experience. We are always trying to create new products and be more efficient and half of the battle is having the curiosity to actually do it.

What story are you telling with your Zombie Gnomes?

Life is scary and you just have to laugh at it sometimes.

You grew up in a family of animators and your father still works for Disney. You must have had a magical childhood. 

I think so. My parents also love Disney movies so I grew up watching all of the classics. I loved when my parents would point to their work or give me a little history about a certain scene or something. It was really fun. Also not many people can say that they live off of their art but my parents are examples that it can happen. My parents never told me that I couldn’t be an artist because I couldn’t make a living off of it so that was different.

You participated in the Walt Disney Internship Program and worked as a stage manager at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. What did that job entail?

Managing the shows before the movies started, help running movie premieres at the theater, things like that. It was an amazing experience and I learned a lot about management, working with professionals in the field and the general public. I had many mentors but I spent most of my time with James Wood who was the best manager I have ever had the pleasure of working with. He taught me a lot of how to be a good manager, which I think really helped me out with our Zombie Gnome business.

That sounds like an amazing experience! What was it like to work at that gorgeous, classic movie venue?

It was magical. The theater has so much history and to be able to walk through it every day was such an amazing opportunity. It was the only theater that would do the premiere for “Citizen Kane,” which I realized when I walked through their hallway full of old pictures. I actually grew up going to that theater as a kid for premieres for my parents films. So it has a very special place in my heart.

Jane with a “The Birds” cosplayer at ScareLA in 2017.

Let’s talk about your personal fandoms. As a fellow Hitchcock fan, I must ask you about your love of the director’s films. How did you discover Hitch and which of his movies are your favorite?

My parents and my grandfather, who lived with us most of my childhood, are big old movie fans. We enjoyed watching classic movies together on Friday nights and would have TCM on almost all the time. They introduced me to “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” and “The Birds.” I loved them.

It’s funny, I don’t really like Hitchcock as a person, but his films were thrilling. He also used my favorite actress Ingrid Bergman in a lot of my favorite films of his. My favorite films of his would probably be “Shadow of a Doubt” (love the woman protagonist), “Spellbound” (Because of the Dali sequence), and “Rear Window” (because, duh).

You’re into “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” What do you like about those series?

So much. Buffy being a badass superhero who was also feminine. I love the development of all of the characters in the shows from being teenagers to awesome vampire killers. I love when Buffy dies and comes back and she deals with not being in heaven anymore. When we met Dawn and everyone is like, “Yeah, Buffy has a sister. What? You don’t remember her?” The musical episode is magical even though not everyone could sing very well. Of course, there is Faith, who for me is a great anti-hero. “Angel,” I thought, was such a solid show and I am so sad it got cancelled to soon.

Are you Team Angel or Team Spike?

Spike. He was funny and didn’t sulk all the time. Got to love that in a guy.

How many hours have you spent playing Fallout?

Too many, but it is a good way for me to de-stress.

Jane and Chris dressed up for Halloween in 2016.

What was your introduction to Harry Potter?

I was in junior high and I heard some kids at my Christian school talking about how their parents wouldn’t let them read the books because they had witchcraft in them. I asked my mom about it and she said I couldn’t read them for that reason. She was into witchcraft when she was younger. So as a Christian, she felt like she had to protect me. However, as the years went on she got over it and I finally read them. I love the books and even got my mom interested in them.

What’s your Hogwarts house?

Ravenclaw, all the way!

You’re a “Lord of the Rings” fan. Who’s your favorite inhabitant of Middle-Earth?

As a teenager, I loved Aragorn because he was handsome and brooding. I also enjoyed the elves because they were just so smart and composed. Now that I’m older I think I really enjoy the hobbits. They are just so fun and full of life. They are very clueless though …

Do you prefer the books or the movies? Or both?

The books are very tedious. I don’t know if I have completely finished one because they are just that tedious. I can only care so much about the description of a mountain that I will not hear about ever again. However, I do love and appreciate the books. My husband and I love the movies and watch them a couple times a year. We actually saw them in theaters when they came out again.

If you were stranded on an island with just one movie by Hayao Miyazaki, what would it be?

“Spirited Away.” One of the most beautiful and magical animated films ever made. Close second would be “Princess Mononoke.”

Do you and your husband have any future plans or dreams for ChrisandJanesPlace or your business in general?

Always. We want to keep getting bigger and better. That includes new Zombie Gnome products, books, and other products. Of course, we are always working to get more of our products in stores across the U.S. and the world.

Let’s wrap up with a few zombie-related questions.

Why do you think zombie stories have become such an iconic part of pop culture?

I think it’s the thought of losing control of one’s body. Having no free will and possible killing the ones you love is terrifying. I like how Robert Kirkman puts it in his introduction in his first volume of “The Walking Dead,” “Good zombie movies show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in society … and our society’s station in the world. They show us gore and violence and all that cool stuff too … But there’s always an undercurrent of social commentary and thoughtfulness.”

What will be the cause of the zombie apocalypse? 

Cuts to the CDC.

What’s your survival strategy for when the zombie apocalypse hits?

Going to a hardware store

Which is scarier: Classic slow-moving zombies or fast-moving rage-monkey zombies?

Fast. Always fast.

Should there be a Zombie Gnome movie?

Yes, but of course I’m not biased at all.

 

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