Intricately carved ‘tree spirits’ bring a sense of wonder to St. Simons Island

Local artist Keith Jennings turns oak tree imperfections into art on this barrier island off the coast of Georgia

Photo: Bonnie Aleman

Ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss stand guard at the entrance of the Sea Island Golf Club on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. The famous Avenue of the Oaks dates back to 1826 when plantation owner Anna Page King planted the double row of saplings that now line the roadway.

Nearly 200 years later, I am meandering through these majestic wonders admiring their strength and beauty. The streamers of Spanish Moss waving in the breeze give the trees an eerie appearance. They range in size from grandfatherly giants nearly a century old to young ones recently planted in a meticulously groomed row situated between two golf greens. 

Turning wounds into art

Mother Nature can be cruel to barrier islands. Rain, wind, storms, and hurricanes are constant threats to the lush green grass, swaying palms, and sandy beaches that attract large annual crowds. Signs of nature’s fury abound long after the winds have ceased and the waves calmed. 

I see evidence of limbs ripped from the trunks of these trees, creating a collar and knob at the base where the branch once hung. Nearly every tree sports some signs of battle scars from past storms. Keith Jennings, an artist and former St. Simons resident, turns these wounds into works of art.    

A face carved into an oak tree dripping with Spanish Moss.
Keith Jennings has carved about 40 “tree spirits” on St. Simons Island. | Photo courtesy of the Golden Isles CVB

What began as an experiment to beautify a single damaged tree in his yard turned Jennings into a local celebrity. “I carved an image into a tree in my backyard, and people who came to visit loved it,” he says. From there, he started taking on carving projects for both businesses and individuals. In total, Jennings created about 40 carvings—known as “tree spirits”—on St. Simons Island, seven of which are located on public property. 

Marcie Kicklighter, marketing and communications manager for the Golden Isles Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the carvings became so popular that the bureau decided to partner with Jennings to create carvings specifically for the public. She points out that choosing the location for each tree spirit involves a much more elaborate plan than finding an oak tree with fallen limbs. Those are abundant throughout the island. The key is to locate an appropriate tree on public property that is also accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. Access, safety, parking, and creating a sense of discovery are all part of the process in deciding where to place a tree spirit. 

The hunt for tree spirits

I decide to accept the challenge of locating each of the seven public tree spirits. With more than 20 miles of wide paths that weave beside the major thoroughfares, it is easy to bike (or drive a golf cart) around the 12-mile island to experience its splendor at a slower pace.

An mermaid carved into the side of a tree
Mermaid outside the visitor center. | Photo: Bonnie Aleman
An animal face carved into an old oak tree.
Trying to find all spirits is like a treasure hunt. | Photo: Bonnie Aleman

I begin my tour at the visitor center, where I obtain a map showing the general locations of the spirits. The first and most intricate carving is of a mermaid just outside the visitor center. Kicklighter’s office overlooks the mermaid, and she confesses that she loves to watch tourists discover it. She frequently witnesses people of all ages interacting with the carving, sharing the same awe and wonder. “The kids get so excited to see the mermaid,” she says. “It inspires them to seek out the remaining six tree spirits dispersed around the island.” 

Trying to find them all is like going on a treasure hunt. The map gives me the general location, but I have to search among the many oak trees in the area to find each carving. I find one that looks like a monkey, another that resembles a wise old man. Each is unique in both placement and design. 

According to Jennings, oak trees make an ideal canvas for his work because they are hardwoods and less susceptible to rot or disease. He has an abundance to select from, given the hundreds of oak trees on the island.

The process of discovering the St. Simons Island tree spirits leads me to other sites on the island I might have otherwise missed. One tree is just outside of a restaurant in a popular shopping center. Another is near a less frequented fishing pier, where locals tell me about the best places to fish and where I can find the best seafood and local BBQ.  

Over the last five years, visitors have sought out the tree spirits in earnest, making it a popular activity for families who want a break from the beach. Jennings says that he is currently in discussions with the visitors bureau for a project that will add five more tree spirits on public land. He hopes to work with his son to create these additional works of art before the end of the year. 

The designs for the tree spirits are not preconceived, Jennings says. He studies the tree and its characteristics and then creates a design that speaks to him. Each experience is as unique as the end result. 

If you go 

Start at the St. Simons Island visitor center to view the largest and most ornate of the tree spirits. Then pick up a map and start your adventure. All the tree spirits are on public land and accessible at any time.