A slab of wood has Scrabble-like tiles that are arranged with a quote from Lady Bird Johnson: "Where Wildflowers Bloom, So Does Hope." Other tiles contain painted wildflowers.

Cindy Goldman and Spider Johnson, who work together as 3 of Heart Designs, contributed a colorful piece inspired by Lady Bird Johnson. Photo courtesy the Cabinet Oak Project.

If only this branch could talk. During a 2020 thunderstorm, a giant limb of a 300-year-old live oak at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park crashed to the ground. No ordinary oak, this voluptuous old tree on the lawn of the Texas White House presided over so many meetings of LBJs cabinet members—some of whom sat cross-legged under its branches—that it is widely known as the Cabinet Oak. Its leaves have shaded famed LBJ advisors like Bill Moyers and Robert McNamara, members of the press, and ambassadors; in quieter moments, it likely sheltered many of LBJ and Lady Bird’s private cocktail hours.

When Susanne McDonald, then the superintendent of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, reported to Johnson City-based artist and gallery owner Mark Lesly Smith that the limb was down, they cooked up a plan. “Susanne and I were looking at this huge limb, and we just thought, ‘This is historic wood,’” Smith says. “So much has happened under this tree. I’m sure LBJ relieved himself under it, so it’s got his DNA. We can’t just burn it up.”

So along with gallerist Kevin Tully, they set out to turn the beautiful old branch into art, calling their endeavor the Cabinet Oak Project. As the founder of Flatbed Press in Austin and a seasoned art curator and educator, Smith used his deep connections in the Texas art world and contacted more than 50 artists, all of whom were game to take a piece of the historic limb and give it their own artistic spin. A very literal example of how art can metamorphose, the Cabinet Oak now lives on in many new forms.

Wanting a prominent artist to headline the project, Smith reached out to East Texas-raised modernist sculptor James Surls, whose nature-inspired wooden creations are in the permanent collections of museums across Texas, the Smithsonian, and beyond. Smith says that Surls gave him “a full-bodied yes.” Surls, in turn, was given a 600-pound chunk of the tree which he then smoothed, carved, and whittled into one of his signature mystery and symbol-rich sculptures.

Other celebrated Texas artists taking part in the oak’s evolution include Catherine Lee, an internationally acclaimed painter and sculptor from Pampa; Bob Schneider, the popular Texas musician who’s also a visual artist; and contemplative Wimberly-based light and space artist McKay Otto, who transformed his piece into a sculpture with courier-font text that references LBJs presidential achievements including the Clean Air Act and the Civil Rights Act. “All kinds of beautiful and unexpected art pieces have emerged,” Smith says.

A massive chunk of wood, standing on a display case, with a part showing the rings of the tree.

Wood sculptor James Surls transformed his piece, titled ‘History Work,’ out of a 600-pound chunk of the live oak tree at LBJ National Historical Park. Photo courtesy of the Cabinet Oak Project.

With support from the nonprofit Friends of Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, the Cabinet Oak Project has evolved into a juried art show, auction, and celebration—with a party on May 6 at Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye—to honor LBJ’s legacy. Katie Robinson Edwards, director and curator of the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum in Austin, is the juror for the show, which is on display in the national park’s visitors center—the former hangar for LBJ’s smaller jet nicknamed Air Force One-Half—through May. Each patron of the auction will be a new steward of a piece of LBJ’s treasured oak.

And to come full circle, the money earned from the auction will assist in the restoration of the Texas White House, which, in need of structural repair, has been closed to visitors since the beginning of 2022—most exciting of all for the art community—it will help establish an artist residency program on the grounds of the LBJ National Historical Park. There are currently more than 50 residencies offered in national parks across the country.

“We’ll finally have an artist retreat out here on the LBJ ranch,” Smith says. “I think LBJ and Lady Bird would love that. You know, he founded the National Endowment for the Arts, so he understood the importance of art. It all kind of fits together.”

On the Cabinet Oak Project’s website, a rousing quote from LBJ reads, “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.” With vision, the Cabinet Oak team has assured that a piece of LBJ’s oak tree has not perished as well.

All Cabinet Oak art is now available for purchase by bid, online here. And on May 6, at the Garrison Brothers’ whisky distillery barn in Hye, there will be a live art auction and celebration. Buy tickets here

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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