The abundance and variety of trees in North Carolina have given artists a wide palate of native woods to use in their work: pine, oak, walnut, cherry, cedar, dogwood, poplar and basswood, among others. That variety extends to wood artists whose work spans traditional hand carving to fine art selling for tens of thousands of dollars.
Like ceramics, early woodworking satisfied everyday utilitarian needs — for tools, furniture and transportation. As basic needs were met, artistic flourishes began to find their way into objects: for instance, a walking stick or fireplace mantel might be carved with a design expressing the maker’s individual taste.
The craft revival in the 1920s brought a renewed interest in traditional native crafts and folk art at places like the John C. Campbell Folk School and Penland School of Crafts. Using pocket knives, carvers transformed scraps of wood into dolls and toys for their children. As tourism developed, carving became an important source of income, and successful carving centers developed in Cherokee, Asheville, Tryon and Brasstown.
Will West Long, Carved Mask
Cherokee was home to many celebrated carvers at the beginning of the 20th century. Seaborn Bradley was known for making war clubs, tomahawks and walking sticks; Will West Long and his son Allen made masks used in native celebrations; and Hayes Lossiah crafted traditional Cherokee blowguns, darts, bows and arrows. Goingback Chiltoskey and Amanda Crowe became influential teachers for the Cherokee community.
Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale, coming to N.C. most likely as missionaries, established Biltmore Estate Industries in Asheville in 1905, initially focusing their production on carving and later adding weaving. In 1915, the pair moved south of Asheville to establish Tryon Toy-Makers and Wood-Carvers.
In the 1930s, several wood carvers were known in and around Brasstown, home of the John C. Campbell Folk School, including Floyd Laney, William Julius “W. J.” Martin, who carved traditional animals, and influential carving teacher Parker Fisher. Other carvers, like Herman and Mabel Estes, made mostly functional items including serving platters. “Brasstown Carvers” was established in the 1950s, known for its small, highly polished animals and nativity scene figures.
Randy Shull, Divided Reflection 2006
Today, the Southern Highlands Craft Guild and Piedmont Craftsmen give visibility to the finest wood artists in the state. The aptly named Woody family, now in its seventh generation of crafting traditional wooden rockers and chairs by hand without nails or glue, maintains its business in Spruce Pine while the work of high-end Asheville furniture artists like Randy Shull and Brent Skidmore appears in venues like the Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte. Renowned Saluda woodturner Stoney Lamar creates art with a lathe, and Bynum outsider artist Clyde Jones invents “critters” with his chainsaw. All have earned international recognition.
A blurring of lines between craft and visual art also is evident today. Casar resident Bob Trotman began his career as a furniture maker but now fashions compelling sculpture using wood as his medium. Chapel Hill sculptor Patrick Dougherty has craft at the core of his work, weaving saplings to create monumental sculpture.