Leavell a natural to design Cherry Blossom art

BULLARD -- Rose Lane Leavell has had a long-standing “love affair” with trees.

She was born to hug them. Her family tree is part of their legacy. The first five letters of her last name spell L-E-A-V-E.

Rose Lane is a third-generation tree farmer. Her roots go all the way back to when her ancestors began working the land in Twiggs County in the 1790s. Her granddaddy was among the first pine tree growers in the area.

Her husband, acclaimed keyboard player Chuck Leavell, is one of the country’s most well-respected environmentalists and forestry experts. Together, the Leavells were named “National Tree Farmers of the Year” in 1999 by the American Forest Foundation.

Trees have given her a lifetime of joy. They have provided shade in the summer, shelter and warmth against winter winds, and inspiration for her canvas.

“I live in a forest,” she said, her eyes stretching reverently across the 2,500 acres at Charlane Plantation.

When Rose Lane was commissioned to design and create the plate and pin for this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, she did not have to reach far into her well of imagination.

Naturally, it had to be a tree.

A Yoshino cherry tree.

There are mostly Southern yellow pines at Charlane Plantation, the tract of land she inherited from her grandparents, Alton Vestal White Sr. and Julia Faulk White. The plantation is a popular hunting preserve and retreat, and the Leavells sometimes affectionately call it “Charlane-gri-la.”

When they moved into their 134-year-old house in 1981, a landscaper from Wheeler’s Nursery suggested they plant a Yoshino cherry tree in a corner of the yard.

That was two years before the first Cherry Blossom Festival in Macon. There wasn’t nearly as much of a fuss about the flowering cherry trees back in those days. Macon now has more than 300,000 of them, more than any city on the planet.

As their own lone cherry tree began to grow and mature, Rose Lane joined others in reveling in the springtime beauty of the Yoshinos.

This was reinforced when she accompanied Chuck to Japan as part of The Rolling Stones’ Bigger Bang World Tour in the spring of 2006. She watched the trees blooming in their native habitat, and how thousands of people would lay their zabuton sitting mats on the ground to stake out a place beneath the breathtaking blossoms.

In addition to her own contribution, this year’s festival will be extra-special in other ways. Chuck is expected to make a special appearance at this year’s street party on March 26. And his new book, “Growing a Better America,” about environmental responsibility, will be released next week.

Her love of painting began in the third grade, when she won a poster contest in Nannie Whitehurst’s class at Twiggs County Elementary School. Her grandmother had artistic talent as an interior designer and decorator. Her mother, Rosaline White, is a gifted seamstress and quilt maker.

In college at the University of Georgia, Rose Lane focused on studying fashion merchandising rather than a paintbrush.

She was working for Phil Walden at Capricorn Studios in 1973 when she met and married Chuck. His creativity was music, and he has now played the piano for more than 90 recording artists, including The Allman Brothers Band and The Rolling Stones.

They have two daughters, Ashley and Amy. Rose Lane ran a boutique in downtown Macon for 19 years. It was called Cornucopia Gallery, and it featured art, handmade jewelry and ladies apparel.

On a flight to California in 1988, she had what she calls an epiphany.

“At age 40, I re-invented myself,” she said.

She returned to college and enrolled in art classes at Wesleyan. It was a good start, but it was difficult raising her girls and running her business.

She soon began taking private art lessons, studying color theory and drawing from Houser Smith, watercolor from Ernie Stofko and portraits from Marc Chatov.

“Houser taught me to see it with my eyes, feel it with my heart and interpret it with my hands,” she said. “It changed my life. I have never looked at things the same way.”

Now, one of her greatest passions is to grab her easel and disappear into the solitude of the woods at Charlane with her three dogs -- Mollie Mae, Maggie Mae and Charlie.

“When you paint things that are real, ‘‘she said, “you are recording history.”

You see the forest. And the trees.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or gris@macon.com.