50 States of Public Art: The Tree Spirits of St. Simons Island, Georgia

Public art is everywhere, and in some parts of the country you can even still go out and enjoy it. (Sorry, snow-packed Northerners, the public art portion of this blog is headed south for the winter.) With that, let’s take a quick (virtual) trip to St. Simons Island in coastal Georgia. 

The Tree Spirits of St. Simons Island, Georgia

Tree Spirit carved into an oak tree somewhere in the beach town of St. Simons Island. (Artist: Keith Jennings. Photo via 365 Atlanta Traveler.)

Title: Tree Spirit

Artist: Keith Jennings

Location: St. Simons Island, Georgia

Photo Source: 365 Atlanta Traveler

Located on the southeast Georgia coast between Savannah and Jacksonville, St. Simons Island is a small seaside resort town with year-round residents, hard-packed sandy beaches, miles of bike trails, a rich and complicated history with deep ties to the U.S. Navy, and a unique crop of public art.

Before the Revolutionary War, the colonies’ sea-faring merchants sailed the seas under the protection of the British Navy. Merchants based in the colonies shipped their salted fish, wheat, tobacco, and grains around the world with relatively little trouble. Admittedly, 75% of the colonies’ exports were shipped to Britain as part of the first leg of the infamous Triangular Trade (the triangular trade route used to exchange raw materials, manufactured goods, and slaves among Europe, its colonies, and Africa), but it was a lucrative business.

Once the war was over and the United States had gained its independence, the situation changed dramatically. Britain withdraw its naval support for our merchants and cut its imports of American goods to a meager 10% of our exports. This rapid cutback triggered a depression in the former colonies.

The United States desperately needed to find new international markets for the exports that Britain was no longer buying. But without a well-respected navy of its own, America’s merchants became easy prey for pirates operating off the coasts of Africa. At first, the fledgling U.S. government paid the pirates for protection, but participating in this extortion scheme was an untenable long-term solution.

The United States Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, which authorized the construction of six new frigates to protect our rights on the seas. The problem was, building ships was a costly business for a country with few funds. The newly formed United States needed to find a native source of timber to keep expenses in check.

Long-time readers will remember from one of my past public art posts that the builders tasked with building the U.S.S. Constitution in 1794 wanted to buy the massive Avery Oak tree in Dedham, MA for this purpose. The Avery family refused, and the Avery Oak tree remained undisturbed until a thunderstorm finally knocked it down in July, 1973.

Another team of government timber surveyors apparently went South to source pine from the Carolinas and live oak trees from Georgia’s barrier islands, including St. Simons. At the time, live oak was considered one of the best woods for building ships because it was an extremely dense wood that held up to salt water well. The branches of live oak trees were also naturally curved, which allowed builders to create the curved shape of ships without having to make quite so many joins.

The live oak forests on St. Simons and the nearby islands proved to be so dense, that in 1792, James Gould, a government timber surveyor from Granville, Massachusetts, decided to settle on St. Simons and set up his own lumber mill. Gould used local slave labor to harvest the trees, which he then shipped up the coast to the massive frigate-building shipyards in the North.

All of which is why when local artist Keith Jennings wanted to pay homage to the sailors who lost their lives at sea, he chose to carve his tree spirits into the live oak trees that remain on St. Simons Island.  Instead of clustering his sailors in one particular patch of the island, Jennings scattered his tree spirits on various trees around town. Look for the faces of his sailors in the nubs of long gone branches or breaks in the tree bark.

As you look, keep in mind that not all of the tree spirits are faces. Jennings also carved a magnificent full-length mermaid into the tree outside the Golden Isles CVB office at 529 Beachview Drive on St. Simons Island.

Want to see it yourself?

I wasn’t able to find a map of these tree spirits online. However, I’ve heard that the folks at the Golden Isles CVB office keep an informal list. They should be able to point you in the direction of at least a few.

One of the reasons there’s no official map may be that the census of tree spirits is constantly changing. Sometimes, it’s because the host tree itself has been removed or blown down by natural causes. But sometimes, as in the case of the tree spirit that used to live outside Murphy’s Tavern, it’s because someone has carted the tree spirit off and left the host tree behind.

Even though some of the older spirits have disappeared, local artists are still carving new ones, so keep your eyes open as you wander. I bet you’ll spot a few in some unexpected places. When you do, send us a picture here at Caterpickles. We’d love to see what you find.

Happy public art hunting!

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