Culture // 6 min Read

The Bluff – The Art and Wisdom of Trees

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Apr 18, 2023

Old trees radiate a kind of power, a presence. Much is made over the wisdom of trees, the metaphor of the seed that grows into the tree, the relationships between trees. But standing in the shade of an ancient tree, you can actually feel it. The live oak in Nancy Dwight’s backyard in the May River Forest neighborhood is one such tree. It is a sight to behold, its low arms dipping back into the earth and growing skyward again. Resurrection ferns grow from its shoulders, and soft shafts of light filter through its canopy.

For Nancy, it has always been about the tree. She says this again and again in our various conversations about life, art, and history. The Dwights bought their two lots for this tree; they built their house around it. Indeed, Nancy’s paintings and everything she holds true about place, people, and art is somehow connected back to this tree. Nancy is an accomplished oil painter and former member of the Palmetto Bluff Arts Commission, a precursor to the Artists of the Bluff. But before that she had a long and successful career as a politician, policy maker, and analyst. I visit Nancy at home in early November. I am catching the Dwights in a quiet moment amidst a flurry of holiday trips and events. I arrive in the late afternoon, and we ascend a narrow set of stairs to her studio, a cozy, well organized room over the garage. She is gearing up for a show, and paintings are displayed on easels and leaning against the walls. The room had been used for storage, she tells me, until—like everything else in Nancy’s life—her painting career took off. Nancy Sinnott Dwight was raised in the suburbs of Chicago. Her family moved east in time for her first year at Wheaton College in 1968, a time of national strife and international unrest. The war raged in Vietnam, and protests were erupting in cities across the world. The summer before her junior year, she worked on the Massachusetts governor’s campaign. (She met Don Dwight that summer, though the two would not reconnect for another decade.) It was this time at Wheaton and her work in state politics that activated Nancy. By age twenty, she knew she wanted to work in public policy. Things accelerated quickly, and five years later Nancy was elected vice chair of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee. It was a public role, and she was catapulted into state and eventually national politics, most notably as the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington, D.C. In 1982 Nancy married Don and they had two children. They lived in Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, and finally back to Massachusetts in their long and successful political and communications careers. For nearly thirty years, they moved through life at this breakneck speed, creating a vast network of colleagues and friends, a large family, and an impressive body of work. Throughout all of this, since her days at Wheaton, Nancy doodled and sketched. It was never more than a personal hobby, taking a Saturday class here and there to unwind from the week. The Dwights first visited Palmetto Bluff in 2009. Nancy had seen the May River Golf Course on the cover of a magazine and felt drawn to it. Their first visit was magical. “We felt like we had come to paradise,” she remembers. “It was the air, the light.” They stayed at the old Inn and rode their bikes, played golf, and took walks. By the end of the weekend, they had bought a lot. They made no immediate plans and returned to Boston. But the Lowcountry kept calling, and the Dwights continued to visit. Over the next few years, they found what can best be described as a political diaspora coming and going from Palmetto Bluff and the surrounding area. In this way it felt like home, it felt like they could find a real community to belong to. They completed construction on their home in 2012 and moved in permanently three years later. Don wanted to pen a memoir, and Nancy could finally turn her attention to her secret love of art. And after a full-tilt career, she wanted something to throw herself into intensely. She attended a backyard painting class with friend and longtime Palmetto Bluff member Sally Hickman. Sally brought artist and teacher Chris Groves from Charleston for weekly classes. Nancy had no oils, no brushes, no canvas—only a picture of what she wanted to paint. But the first class lit her on fire. Groves was encouraging; he told her to stick with it. And she did. She started painting all the time.

I watch as Nancy squeezes tubes of paint onto a palette, each measure of color gleaming. She applies paint to canvas as we talk, the scratch scratch of her brushes a pleasant undertone to our conversation. Nancy often starts a painting en plein air, bringing small studies back to her studio to ponder over and perhaps paint again. Her paintings have a serene quality, mostly marsh scapes with dramatic skies, vast puffy clouds tinged pink and peach. “It’s an emotional experience,” she says. “How I paint depends on who I am that day, the kind of day it is. When I bring it back into the studio, I’m haunted by it. I’m always thinking about it.” When I ask her about the importance of art, Nancy is quiet for a moment. “A good community has quality art,” she says thoughtfully. “I think history and art are so essential to understanding anything. People used to ask me how to best learn who to vote for, and I always said they should know the history of their community. I feel the same way about art. It’s a sense of place.” The art of this place, Nancy explains, is pulled out of the land, light, and water. And it’s as if, by painting it, she is paying homage to place—its people, its history, its natural beauty. “It’s the tree. It is as strong and magnificent as ever at three hundred years old. I think a lot about what was going on here three hundred years ago.” As I contemplate her various paintings around the room, it strikes me that they indeed feel timeless, as if they could have been painted hundreds of years ago. I follow Nancy from the studio, through the house, and onto a raised brick patio. We gaze out at the oak. The whole house, I realize, is like an amphitheater, a rambling series of gracious rooms with high windows that all look out onto this tree. And while it is revered, it is also lived in. The Dwights host parties under its canopy, and their many grandchildren climb its gnarled branches to wide sitting places at its center. It is their tree, like a member of the family. Nancy has the tree expertly pruned every three years, and arborists have installed a metal cable through the canopy to help support its aging weight. I walk the perimeter as Nancy sets up her easel, ties a bandana around her neck, and gets to work. Because most branches reach the ground, the canopy creates a kind of room, a fairy-tale echo chamber. I think again about the life of this tree, the storms it has weathered, the people it has shaded. And now Nancy and her family. I see she is working on an underpainting of the tree, roughing in the dark masses of its shade, the glints of light that break through its leaves. It’s all there, art and nature, history and people.

See this article and more in the latest edition of The Bluff.

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