Hot Springs Artist Documents Arkansas Champion Trees

Zoie Clift, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

A traveling art exhibit highlighting Arkansas champion trees is currently touring the state. Hot Springs artist Linda Palmer traveled around 10,000 miles over five years to locate and document these mammoths that have been recognized by the Arkansas Forestry Commission as the largest of each species.

Palmer found out about the Arkansas State Champion Trees list in 2007. “I have always been inspired as an artist by nature and especially by trees,” she says. “I started looking at this list and saw all these big wonderful trees and thought I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to locate, photograph them, come back to my studio and create drawings and maybe someday I might even have a complete exhibit.”

There are 127 champion trees in the state and this list is updated every five years. The most recent revisions were completed two years ago. So far, Palmer has photographed 56 of the trees on the list.

Eighteen large drawings and 18 small leaf drawings make up her current exhibit on the endeavor, Arkansas Champion Trees: An Artist’s Journey. Along with the drawings are photographs to show the size of these subjects.

The body of work will be on display at various locations in Arkansas through the end of 2014. The exhibit will also be featured in an AETN documentary, set to premier on March 3.

Since the drawings are done in pencil on large pieces of paper, Palmer completes them in her studio, located at 800 Central Avenue. “I’ll take 40-50 shots of some of these trees, and then work by combining the photos almost like a puzzle and working out a composition,” she elaborates. “And then I will work from that.”

A bald cypress at the White River National Wildlife Refuge is recorded as the largest tree in the state. It stands around 120 feet high and spreads 14 feet wide. “The closest little community to it is Ethel,” she points out. “There aren’t any words to describe this tree. It is huge.”

Palmer said she waited for a prime time to photograph the towering giant. She said normally water, around 8-10 feet, surrounds it in its native swamp. The bald cypress stands out, she says, because it has knees around it, knotty growths that come up all around the tree. “When the water is around the tree you can just see the top of the knees,” she describes. “I waited two years, until a dry year in the fall, and went out to photograph it when the knees were visible. I wanted to capture the most unique. My drawing is the whole tree with the knees up around it. The tallest knee is supposed to be about 10 feet tall.”

This particular bald cypress has become a popular destination. “A lot of people go out to see it,” she mentions. “It is a nice mile long hike back to it. The Forest Service has cleared a path. So it is an easy hike there.”

Other noted champion trees are a Persimmon tree in Dardanelle that is also a National Champion, and the Council Oak, a massive white oak tree where a Cherokee Indian chief signed a treaty giving all land south of the Arkansas River to the territory in 1820.

Palmer points out that “people are amazed we have trees this large here. A lot of people that are into hiking are looking at the list and making it part of their hike. Many people have no idea there is an existing list of the large trees.”

“There should be a lot of pride for our state about these trees,” she adds, noting that a historic tree list [Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program] is also available.

Palmer moved to Hot Springs in 1991 for the art scene. She has painted in oils and watercolor. Her work now is “predominately colored pencil and oils. I’ve been doing this for 35 years.”

Next on her agenda: writing a book about her experience documenting the champion trees of the state.

“One of the things that has been a real bonus about this project is when I started meeting people and communities that really honored their trees,” she said. “I started keeping a journal of the information they gave me about the area, about their trees. I realized the history. Some of these trees have stood for 200, 300 years and witnessed a lot of history. One of the men I spoke with says the tree has been in his family for three generations. He reveres that tree because of his family history. So many of these are in Ethel, Keo, a lot of these small communities that a lot of people don’t know much about until I started touring the state -- beautiful, unique small towns and communities.”

“These trees should be revered and protected,” she adds. “I am hoping this will draw attention to other large trees in the state and more people will nominate their trees or at least people will think twice before they cut down a large tree.”

For a complete list of the Arkansas State Champion Trees and for more information about the program, visit forestry.arkansas.gov. Information about the Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program can also be found here. A complete tour schedule of Palmer’s exhibit can be found at championtreesexhibit.org or at lindawilliamspalmer.com.

The exhibit is organized for travel by the Arkansas Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and is supported in part by the Arkansas Arts Council, an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, and by the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, 501-682-7606
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