Author: Paul deVere
Imagine yourself seated on the crest of a wave rushing to the shore. Before you is an expert on Lowcountry reptiles telling you all about alligators. A huge canopy of live oaks creates a translucent shell above and around you, while two rather relaxed (and rather large) bronze birds look back at you, rather amused. The birds are a dead giveaway.
No, you are not in a Lewis Carroll fantasy (maybe). You are at the new “Birds-Eye-View” Theatre at Coastal Discovery Museum. Created by sculptor Walter Palmer, a master of fantasy and amusement, the “mini-amphitheater” is a new outdoor classroom for the museum’s nature and history programs. At the end of April, students began climbing over the oyster shell-framed “waves” to learn about, among other things, the natural history of the Lowcountry.
Depending on the length of time you have been a citizen of Hilton Head, the name Walter Palmer may have great or little impact. But, unless you arrived sometime last Friday, the imprint of his works on the island has, in some way, affected you. For instance, as the CBS cameras zoom in on the surroundings of the 16th green or 17th tee at Harbour Town during the RBC Heritage, they always include Jack Docherty’s backyard and Palmer’s signature piece, “I love the game,” an anthropomorphic bird with visor, cracking a 7-iron over his/her head. It may be the most televised work of art on the PGA Tour.
Palmer doesn’t like to use the “anthropomorphic” label. “Too complicated,” he said. Decades ago, when continually asked what kind of birds Palmer was creating, his response was always a question of his own: “What kind of rabbit is the Easter bunny?”
While the classroom’s concept was Walter Palmer’s, the execution was carried out by son and artist Wally Palmer, whose intricate mosaic treatment on the surfaces of the installation creates a subtle sense of unity within the space. “I got the idea of the piece coming out of the earth from the works of sculptor Beverly Pepper. The island mosaic was inspired by batiks of barrier islands by Mary Edna Fraser,” Walter Palmer explained. “I wanted everything to be an organic part of the site. Wally and his crew made that happen.”
The story surrounding the unusual classroom began with a conversation between Palmer and Mary Ann Peeples, who was instrumental in securing funding for Honey Horn as home to the museum. An outdoor classroom was on the wish list of capital improvements the museum had planned, and Palmer came up with his design.
When he presented his drawings, the museum’s executive director Michael Marks said the decision to approve the concept was easy. “Walter had a clear vision of what he wanted the space to look like. Our decision to choose Walter didn’t take long. Walter’s reputation as a sculptor is well known. So many people know Walter and so many have a piece of his work,” Marks said.
“Several years ago we [Marks, Peeples and Palmer] walked the property and we found what we thought was the perfect location,” Marks said. “But we had to throw the project into idle until we found the funding.”
In 2011, Hilton Head Island residents Jim and Ethel Montag approached Marks and brought the project to life. “They wanted to know what kind of capital improvements we had on the books. We talked about a number of things, but Jim’s wife was just enthralled with Walter’s idea of the outdoor classroom area. They made a decision that they wanted to fund it,” Marks explained.
The museum already had proof of the popularity of Palmer’s work. In 2013, “Tales of Hilton Head,” a piece commissioned in 2001 by the Women’s Association of Hilton Head Island, was moved from Shelter Cove Community Park to Honey Horn. The piece features one of Palmer’s birds sitting on a bench with a book in hand. Since its installation, Marks said that it’s one of the most popular places on the property. “Families walk by and have kids sit next to the bird to have their picture taken. My office window looks right out onto the bench. I see it happen every day. As a matter of fact, there’s a little girl sitting on the bench right now,” Marks said.
Marks called the new classroom “a real attention grabber. We’ve gotten a whole lot of response from visitors. Entire families get their picture taken in front of the island mosaic and the birds. It was important to have a little Walter out here. After all, he’s part of the history of the island.”