Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

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

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

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

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.

St. Simons Island was a thriving port during colonial times

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.

But once the U.S. gained its independence, Britain cut ties

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 U.S. desperately needed a navy of its own–and that meant finding a local source of wood with which to build ships

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.

St. Simons was rich in live oak trees, and live oak wood is great for shipbuilding

Another team of government timber surveyors 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.

That history feeds Keith Jennings’ public art

St. Simons’ deep connections to the sea and to the U.S. Navy help explain why when local artist Keith Jennings decided 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.

Want to go, but need help selling it to your kids?  

The fact that public art is installed in public spaces creates all sorts of opportunities for family fun. Pack a picnic lunch, and pair the outing with a trip to a nearby park or playground. If you have one, consider bringing your dog.

Don’t have time for a full-fledged outing? Challenge your kids to keep their eyes open while you are out and about doing something else. I bet they (or you) will spot something interesting on your next walk, bike ride, or errand run.

My book, What’s That, Mom?: How to use public art to engage your children with the world around them… without being an artist yourself, is full of tips like these for making public art sightings fun for your entire family.

What’s That, Mom? provides 15 accessible, practical strategies for using public art to spark conversations with children between the ages of 3 and 10 — no artistic talent or insight required. What’s That, Mom? is available at and Amazon. There’s even a journal to go with it so that your kids can sketch their favorite works of art and you can record your favorite moments from your outing.

NOTE: The above paragraph contains affiliate links to, an online bookstore that provides financial support to local, independent bookstores. At the time I wrote this post, had already raised $12.8m for local bookstores. If you use the link in the previous paragraph to purchase my book on, I’ll earn a commission on your book purchase, as will your preferred independent bookshop. You can also find my book in the new Caterpickles BookstoreRegardless of whether you use my links or visit the Caterpickles Bookstore, thank you for spending part of your day reading Caterpickles. Learn more about Affiliate Links, the Caterpickles Bookstore, and why I decided to become a Affiliate.

Happy public art hunting!

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