Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier
Photographer Jack Gescheidt (holding camera) is questioned by Charleston police as he stands beside ACLU attorney Susan Dunn at the Angel Oak after Gescheidt organized a group nude photo at the historic tree Saturday.
An artistic mash-up of flesh and bark drew gasps and a chorus of police sirens Saturday at an impromptu photo shoot beneath the majestic canopy of the Angel Oak.
Some 25 people disrobed and posed around the wide, gnarled trunk of the ancient oak as California-based photographer Jack Gescheidt and a documentary film crew recorded the moment in celebration of the tree, which is rumored to be 1,400 years old.
The guerrilla photo shoot was designed to draw attention to the oak's grandeur and raise concerns about a developer's plans to build apartments and shops on a larger tract adjacent to the small Johns Island park where the tree lives.
A park staffer grew increasingly agitated as the group scouted out camera angles and possible poses in their initial "dressed rehearsal." But when the clothes came off, the stunned staffer screamed for them to stop.
"No, no, no, no, no!" she shouted. "You can't do that here! This is a family park!"
Within three minutes, Charleston police rushed in with sirens blaring and blue lights flashing. The volunteer models were busy hoisting their drawers at that point. They could have taken their time. They were in for long wait as police tried to decide what to do with them.
Gescheidt had no permit for the shoot, which was part of his TreeSpirit Project, a collection of photographs featuring naked humans posing vulnerably around trees to call attention to their importance. He got the idea for the project in 2003 after stumbling across a massive oak while walking in the woods of Marin County, Calif.
Since that time, he has photographed hundreds of naked participants draped in the arms of trees in California and other states.
The 50-year-old photographer had been planning the Angel Oak shoot for two years.
He contends the planned development will strip away much of the Angel Oak's surrounding forest, "desecrating" the land and changing its hydrology.
"I am moved to tears when I look at that tree. She is magnificent," he said. "Preserving that tree really matters."
Developer Robert DeMoura has been pursuing the housing plan for years and is now going through the process of seeking a federal wetlands permit. The plan is supported by the city of Charleston, which intends to buy 6.5 acres from DeMoura to increase the size of the 2-acre Angel Oak Park.
Reached late Saturday, DeMoura defended the project, saying four world-renowned arborists have deemed the plans "superior" for protecting the oak. He said Gescheidt's shoot, on the other hand, was "a very tasteless way to disrespect the Angel Oak and a public park."
A grassroots group called Save the Angel Oak is trying to stop the development, which it believes is too dense, unattractive and inappropriate for the special spot. Co-founder Samantha Siegel was among those who turned out to pose for the sans-clothes photo.
"I feel the world really needs to know what's happening here," she said. "And this sends a really positive message that we love this tree."
Plans for the happening spread quietly through word-of-mouth and attracted a variety of participants of all ages, shapes and sizes.
New Jersey photographer Louis Dallara, 67, came down to show respect for the tree he'd photographed several times over the years. Heather Shore, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mom, drove from Raleigh because she'd long wanted to participate in a TreeSpirit shoot. Recent College of Charleston graduates Jessica Hunter and Margaret Hilton were planning on visiting the Angel Oak for the first time on Saturday and decided this would make the memory a little more special.
"I think this is going to be a life moment," Hilton said.
The group gathered at a small cafe beforehand and painstakingly went over their strategy. Be low-key, don't attract attention. Be courteous. Do nothing to harm the tree.
They carpooled over around 4 p.m., with a civil rights attorney in tow. Then, they spent some time communing with the tree, feeling its bark, doing yoga beneath its branches. After arranging themselves and trying out their pose clothed, they shed their garments and hustled back to resume their places. A dozen or so tourists, including a few kids, looked on. Some gasped, some laughed, some took photos of their own.
The first police officer on the scene ordered everyone to stay put as the park staffer closed the gates, shutting them in. Soon, some eight officers were on the scene. Police questioned Gescheidt and others, reviewed the photographs, took everyone's name and information. Then they huddled.
Finally, after about 90 minutes, Lt. Chip Searson informed the group they were free to go. No charges would be filed. But he asked them to please refrain from running around naked in city parks.
Gescheidt, who got the shot he came for, praised the police for their handling of the incident.
Those who participated said the experience was worth the inconvenience and the fear of arrest.
"It was amazing," said Tom Steenhuysen of Johns Island. "I was not aware of anyone on the outside. Literally, you became one with the tree for a moment."