We Speak to Paul Leatham, the Man Who Handcrafts Gratitude Guardians in His Garden Studio

Words: Jimi Arundell
Photos: Sophie Gargett
Thursday 18 January 2024
reading time: min, words

Around the streets of Sherwood, something magical is happening. Hidden in the cracks of walls, nestled in bushes, and sat on park benches, these Gratitude Guardians are benevolently watching over us all and keeping you safe. We spoke to Paul Leatham, who has been handcrafting the cute critters in his garden studio for the past three years...

Gratitude Guardians Sophie Gargett (1)
Gratitude Guardians 2 Sophie Gargett

Simple yet elegant in design, the Guardians tend to be just 2.5 to six inches tall, with little more than a charming face, affectionate curious eyes, and a protective rune on the rear. Some are adorned with Aztec headdresses or twisted horns, whilst others have animal ears, bat wings, and even seasonal fur-trimmed yuletide coats. The unique mix of myth and folklore has proven popular, with Paul Leatham finding fans of his Guardians far and wide, and I was excited to meet the man behind the magic.

Brighton-born Paul, a photographer turned art teacher worked at Djanogly City Academy for seventeen years before retiring in March of 2020, just as Covid brought the world to a standstill. Retreating to his garden shed, now converted into his very own studio, he continued his passion for creativity with a special love of working with clay despite having no formal training. “Originally, I was making tiles, ceramic decorative tiles, but then I brought down a Guardian one day from the studio. And Jane, my wife, said, ‘That's lovely. Make more of them.’ So, I did. And that's sort of where they came from.

“We started off with the bigger ones. And then at our first market store noticed that people were really attracted to the small ones. So I made a few more small ones, and a few more, and it just like eventually, that the little fellas just took over.”

A self-described cultural magpie, Leatham takes his inspiration from a wide range of historic traditions and practices from around the world. “It's that idea that goes back as far back as society,” he explains. “People have this idea of investing some sort of energy into an object, or an idol or a thing, and it sort of grew out of that.” He compares them to the ancient Roman Lares Familiares, domestic shrines to little gods in the home to which you paid daily tributes to avoid disaster and keep bad luck at bay, and he sees his Guardians as a modern equivalent, like little helpers that help you find the lost remote control or prompt you to find some spare change down the back of a sofa.

“All cultures have it. We have brownies in England and Scotland. The brownies were half spirits, a little spirit of the home.” He reminisces how his grandparents in Ireland would leave saucers of milk to appease the spirits and other “weird things like that”, and how his parents would also fill his childhood home with images of the Virgin Mary and other Catholic iconography. 

But rather than being religious or overtly spiritual, Paul is drawn more towards the aesthetic of mystic Scandinavian runes, and South American art. He even draws on pop culture too: “There’s bits of Star Wars in there. There’s bits of anime. I don’t know if you've seen Princess Mononoke? There's the tree characters in that.”

But whilst George Lucas and Hayao Miyazaki may go to great lengths to embellish their work, creating extensive backstories for their characters and inventing detailed worlds for them to inhabit, Paul is resistant to forcing a narrative of who they are and where they come from. He is far more fascinated by other people’s interpretations, allowing for the freedom to dream up their own ideas based on the purity of their simple yet elegant features. “I think because of their simplicity, they're just a circle with two dots, people look at them and they will project what they want onto them.” 

And he is adamant that there is no grand idea behind the Guardians who take a life of their own, almost beyond his control, saying, “I get people coming to the counter, and telling me what my work is about, which is perfectly justifiable because I've got no idea. I create these things. And people bring to them what they want.” It seems like the Guardians have magically chosen to come to him in the same way people have discovered them on the streets of Sherwood: “There were no sketches. I didn't sort of sit down and plan them. It was just working with the clay. And yeah, they appeared. And I'm glad they did.”

I get people coming to the counter, and telling me what my work is about, which is perfectly justifiable because I've got no idea. I create these things. And people bring to them what they want

And after they appear to him in the studios, the tiniest of his range which he calls ‘The Ghosts’ begin to pop up on the streets and public spaces of NG5 a week before each Sherwood Market. These ‘Gratitude Guardians’, usually little more than two eyes and maybe some horns on a tiny body are hidden by the mischievous clay maker as his way of thanking the city that supports him. “I went around town, I just put all these little Guardians around. And in my mind, they were just going to stay out there and just form like a protective web over the community. I just posted on Facebook and said ‘Look, I just put these little fellas out there, as a thank you.’ And then suddenly, everyone was hunting for them. And then people were so ecstatic when they found them.”

It's now become a bit of an altruistic tradition for Paul, with collectors young and old eagerly tracking them down. “I imagined in my head kids, but they're not, they’re grown adults who are sort of like just going crazy over these are essentially tiny little pieces of mud.” 

This is how my fiancée and I first heard of them, and the discovery of our Ghost we affectionately call Fred on a traffic barrier on our street became the first of our growing collection of Guardians. I regale him of the story of how we found him, it’s one of many told to him at the stalls by fans who have also made lucky discoveries. “It’s one of the best things I do now” he beams, “I love it.”

Despite their diminutive size - the Ghosts are little bigger than a thumbnail - the response to the Guardians has been enormous and Paul has been contacted by collectors around the world, taking orders from as far as America and even New Zealand, and families sharing them with loved ones in Marseille and Hong Kong. He marvels at the public’s reaction, yet remains modest about this achievement, reflecting, “It’s just funny when I sort of stop and think about them, and how these little things that started out as a little ball of mud up at the top of my garden are off there in the world. It’s just wonderful.”


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