David Lauderdale

Artist gives the dear palmetto her place in the sun

In the shade, her angular fronds are like a Carew Rice silhouette.

In the burning sun, her bushy top looks more like one of us when we wake up.

The humble Sabal palmetto tree is not like the grande dame of the Lowcountry, the live oak festooned with moss.

But the Lowcountry's love affair with the palmetto dates at least to the hot June day its logs protected outnumbered and outgunned Patriots on Sullivan's Island. They miraculously turned away a British fleet, and a week later, our people had the courage to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Lowcountry artist Jim Harrison of Denmark, S.C., has now devoted a book to the beloved tree. "The Palmetto and Its South Carolina Home" is just out from the University of South Carolina Press.

Its 27 plates show he was raised to the rustle of a palmetto in the wind.

In 1974, Gov. John C. West, who spent his golden years on Hilton Head Island, commissioned Harrison to "paint the Palmetto Tree for the State of South Carolina."

West's move was a big boost to the man from a small town who was early in his career as an artist. Harrison had once scored 71 points in a Denmark High School basketball game, and left the more stable life as a coach to follow a dream sparked by his mother, who bought him an art kit; his teenage mentor, a 70-year-old sign painter named J.J. Cornforth; and an elderly art instructor in Allendale named Zita Mellon.

Today, Harrison is well-known for his exacting paintings of rural Americana. It's deliberately a "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" style that he says makes him "a mood realist artist." Many may recognize him as the licensee who produces the Coca-Cola Calendar annually for collectors.

Gov. West's commission of the palmetto tree now hangs in the Statehouse, and the artist has gone on to win the state's top honor, the Order of the Palmetto.

His new book includes details on the palmetto's starring role in the battle of Sullivan's Island, the state flag and state seal. The palmetto has been the state tree since 1939. It was featured prominently on our state quarter, and it has given South Carolina its nickname of "The Palmetto State."

Now the palmetto icon from the state flag has exploded into pop culture, gracing everything from flip-flops to gold teeth.

The tree has always been a part of daily life in the Lowcountry. When newcomers began discovering Hilton Head, Episcopal rector Thorne Sparkman concluded that to be a real islander you must have experienced three things:

  • You must get stuck in the sand, at least once.
  • You must hit a deer.
  • You must back your car into a palmetto tree.
  • Harrison knows that the tree means more to us than a bent bumper or state seal.

    "For thousands of years the stubborn South Carolina palmetto tree has welcomed each new sunrise ready to stand steadfast against the constant changing environment of the coastal region," he writes.

    "With a South Carolina arrogance of 'bring it on,' the tree combats the testing forces of hurricane winds and surging surfs. It gracefully bends but seldom breaks, representing well our symbol of strength, determination and survival."

    It's like the unkempt marsh tacky horse left by explorers to live or die in the Lowcountry marsh, or the stray dog that sired the Boykin spaniel breed. It's a survivor against long odds. And it's beautiful. Like Pawleys Island, and a lot of us, the dear palmetto is "arrogantly shabby."

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