The Tree Spirits of Saint Simmons Island are one of the most fascinating roadside attractions in North America. Carved into dozens of live oaks and hardwoods, the mysterious wise faces that seem to reveal the trees’ inner spirits are the work of local sculptor Keith Jennings.
Jennings started his Tree Spirits project in 1982 as a hobby. Looking for a way to kill time around the house, the artist armed himself with a few hand tools and began exercising his artistic talents on a tree in his backyard. “I had too much time and too little money,” Keith remembers about the beginnings as a tree carver, but his works impressed the community to such a degree that he was later commissioned to release the inner spirits of 20 other trees around Saint Simmons Island, off the Georgia coast.
Although it has long been said that the faces he sculpts into the trees are meant to represent the sailors who drowned on ships made from trees from the island, Keith Jennings dismisses the rumor. “The trees do it all,” he says. “I don’t have that much to do with it. The wood speaks to you, ya know?” Each of his intriguing artworks are created entirely according to the tree they’re carved into. “I like the way they age as they. The bark starts rolling over the edges and gives each one a spooky, eerie appearance,” the artist says.
It takes Keith between two and four days to create one of his Tree Spirits by hand. These weathered faces can be seen peering out from between two large branches, from large knots or from the thick stub of a long-lost branch. So if you happen to explore Saint Simmons Island and notice one of its old trees staring back at you, don’t freak out, get closer and let these beautiful works of art transport you to a fantasy world. Looking at these sage-like wooden faces, I myself can’t help but think of the Heart Trees from George R.R. Martin’s A tale of Ice and Fire.