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Wood That Inspires

Artists' Corner: Wood That Inspires a Work of Art

The lignum vitae tree blooms a bright purple flower. The slow-growing evergreen can reach up to 60 feet in height and bears the name “tree of life.” Its wood contains medicinal properties that can heal a number of ailments, from the common cold to symptoms related to gout. It is self-lubricating and is purportedly the hardest and densest wood on the planet. The tree is native to the Caribbean region, and to some, like St Johnian Herman Smith, its intriguing characteristics inspire a work of art.

Herman is among several local artists who find the unique wood inspirational. When I first met him, he sat in a Papya Café, a small coffee shop in Cruz Bay. From an army green-coloured bag, he pulled out a dozen small chunks of lignum vitae wood that each bore a unique shape but had similar carvings resembling an abstract face. The artist explained that the faces were a theme among his work, which is as dependent of the cut of the wood as it is on the carvings themselves. 


“I see a face in almost everything—even living trees,” said 65-year-old Herman, who is a career horticulturist. “Most people are busy living their day-to-day lives, but then you’ve got others who take the time to find some beauty in things.”

Lignum vitae, he explained, has mezmorized him since he stumbled upon the tree 30 years ago while clearing brush fields in St John. The resilient plant thrives under tough conditions, near saltwater coastlines and even on rocky terrain. The unique wood’s properties have proven valuable for a number of purposes, and Caribbean explorers dating back to the days of Columbus have harvested the wood for use in various industries. Today, the plant is scarcely found on St John and across the Virgin Islands, but to those who know of its amazing properties, like Herman, finding the wood is like unearthing buried treasure.

“Mostly anyone who finds the wood keeps it,” he said, “because anyone who finds the wood—picks it up and feels its weight—they’re fascinated by it.”

On St John, Herman says he has luck finding the wood in East End, Chocolate Hole and Fish Bay. The size of his carvings vary, from arrowhead-shaped necklaces to large pieces that make for ideal centerpieces on tables or office desks.


“You know, I must have sold a million of these already,” he said, adding that his pieces are sold through several vendors on St John and St Thomas. “It’s not like I’ve got a million dollars. I’ll sell them, sure, but I’ll often give them away to those who show interest or have a birthday.”

In cyclical fashion, Herman now focuses on growing the interesting plant to spread its reputation on to those in future generations.

“I plant these wherever I can,” he said. “There’s one right in the center of the roundabout that I planted. Just imagine that—a lignum vitae for all to see.”

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