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The Story of the Brasstown Carvers ... continued

It's about the house that carving built

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In 1931 the school reported success of the handicraft association calling it a “growing link between the school and community.” By 1932 Mrs. Campbell reported “a decided gain this year” in the popularity of the program, noting how carving had begun to take hold in the community.

“The last few weeks have seen a real interest from the boys in carving, for the most part of farm animals. Frequently geese or donkeys make their appearances at meal time and necks or hind-quarters are compared as to beauty of line or resemblance to the original itself. No two are alike, and it is evident that the carvers are finding something in their new diversion besides the money reward,” she wrote.Small carvings

By 1933 there were 20 craft people supplying work regularly, carvers coming out of the woodworks so to speak, with little prompting by the Folk School. “Carving has brought several boys and men to us in the last year whom we might not have known in any other way. They have appeared from time to time bearing chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, or birds, many of which aren't accepted the first time, but most of the carvers are interested enough to try again. Little Quentin Clayton, a local boy of twelve, come one day, panting under the weight of his own wood, and saying that he wanted to learn to carve right away,” accounted the 1933 annual report.

Early on it looked like woodcarving would be the natural vehicle used to “awaken and enliven” the community the Folk School hoped to impact. But to be a full success, Folk School efforts needed to reach beyond an easy fit for the local people. It needed to speak to a larger economy to have the monetary impact it hoped for locally. And who would have thought woodcarving would be the answer to that as well.

A plaque in the History Center explains, “By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt became president (1933) crafts had become recognized as an important part of the economy of rural America.” During an exhibition on mountain handicrafts in Washington, D.C., the Brasstown carvings were discovered. “Mrs. Roosevelt bought a whole flock of geese, wood carvings of applewood and holly wood. Many were the farm animals individualistically carved,” reported a Washington newspaper.

Murrial Galt MartinBy 1935 the school's annual report noted that carvings no longer had to be placed on consignment, with sales shops eagerly purchasing them outright. The carvings were soon to be selling in 48 shops, among them a shop in Chicago and in New York's Rockefeller Center; the intentions of “better economic conditions” coming into fruition. Enter Murray Martin, yet another facet to the Brasstown woodcarving success. A well-educated occupational therapist at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, she came to the Folk School in 1935 by the recruitment of Mrs. Campbell.

“Well, I came to Brasstown. I drove here because I had my own car,” she recalled in a 1994 recorded interview. She arrived just in time for an evening social where she said she didn't know anyone, “I didn't know Mrs. Campbell...Really, I felt like a fish out of water.” She recalled thinking, “My, I won't last here three months because, well, it was ... different ... I never worked for the mountain people before.” But having come so far, “I took a deep breath and asked God to help me and I started in,” she said. What she started in on was four decades of commitment to teaching and coordinating the Brasstown Carvers.

“Mrs. Campbell always said [the carving program] just started when I came,” she nostalgically noted. By the 1940's there were 45 carvers receiving pay for their work. The number grew to 70 at one point, all under the watch of Murray Martin. “She meant so much to lots of people,” explained current Folk School Director Jan Davidson. “She was teaching people something they could do to make a little money,” he continued, “She directly touched people and the community.”

The famous newspaperman Dale Carnegie wrote in a 1945 article about the carvers, “In this section the annual cash income of a whole farm family used to be about $100 a year. Well, there are now 70 families in this section who are selling carvings, all within a ten-mile radius of the school; and many of them are making more money from their carving than from their farming. The carvers range from 12 to 73 years.” “I could no more carve a horse like Jack Hall,” she mused, “but I could show how.” And that is where the importance of Murray Martin's influence lies. Her training allowed her to show a student how to find and utilize his or her creative side.

Carvers working outdoorsJan Davidson said Martin's woodcarving class was the “only Folk School class I ever took back in 1967.” He said, “I took the class because I wanted to be around her.” What he remembers about her teaching was, “the way she would work with a person who the last thing in the world they thought of themselves as was an artist.” She taught observation, he said, to “carve what you know.”

But she also taught them to carve what would sell. Coming from a large city with influential ties, Murray Martin brought knowledge from a world the mountain people she taught knew very little about. She knew what kind of figures were marketable and so set out to make patterns that local carvers could follow. They were mostly animal patterns and they became the signature shapes for the Brasstown Carvers, a name the cooperative formally took in the 1950's. Their famous works still demand a nice price among collectors today. It is often said that Mrs. Martin helped create a cottage industry that continues on, well after her retirement in 1973 and even beyond the end of her life in 2005.

The time between her retirement and her death, Murray Martin lived on the Folk School campus in the Hill House. Her home was full of carvings, noted current Folk School Folklorist David Brose. And she liked to have people over to sit and talk, he added. “The happiest days of my life were spent right there in the carving room with the carvers,” reminisced Martin from her living room in the Hill House.

It became a weekly ritual: carvers would come to the Folk School every Friday morning, some of them walking several miles, to pick up wood blocks, drop off finished pieces and congregate with Mrs. Martin and other carvers to critique and inspire one another. The blocks were cut into loose patterns that carvers would take home and whittle into finished wooden figurines. Different carvers became known for being good at particular shapes. Hayden Hensley was known for geese, the Hall family for their mules, Hope Brown for her cats.

Mrs. Martin said she chose to teach shapes that were familiar to the carvers. “If you're going to carve a pig, go look at one,” she said she often lectured. Many times she brought in live animals for carvers to study. She recalled the story of young carver Avery Beaver who came riding in one day on a horse. “I hadn't seen many riding horses at that time in the mountains,” she recollected. The young Avery had been carving pigs with her up to that point so she said she asked him, “Would you like to carve that horse?” And so they did. “We would go out into the field to study it,” said Martin. Her familiarity with the buying market led Martin to implement standards of high quality, some might venture to say to the extreme. Though likely rubbing the wrong way for some carvers, the ones with tough skin who ended up carving under Mrs. Martin's tutelage certainly benefited financially.

Olive Dame Campbell At a time when most of the surrounding residents were farmers, there were few opportunities to make an outside income. In some cases carving made the difference between moving away from home for work and making enough to stay on the farm. In 1936 Brasstown Carver Ben Hall reported that carving provided the money to buy glasses for his son. Brasstown Carvers Hayden and Bonnie Hensley were able to build a house entirely funded by their craft, referring to it as “the house that carving built.”

Christine Gilbert, a second generation Brasstown Carver who now works in the Folk School kitchen, said that carving “sure helped.” She noted it was something a mother could do at home without leaving her children.

At first it was mainly men who carved, often with women doing the sanding and finishing. An early account by Louise Pitman recalls, “I wish you might have seen the group of men who gathered in the craft room last Saturday morning. They had walked from Warne, about eight miles away, and most of them were members of the Hall family. In the absence of the craft teacher, Mrs. Campbell came in to guide and suggest as the new carvers proudly displayed hogs, mad mules, geese and rabbits. For two hours they whittled and sanded animals, which Mrs. Campbell and I happily watched.”

Little by little women entered the cooperative, with an influx of women during World War II. By 1946 women made up the majority with 33 women carvers and 18 men. Carving turned out to be a craft that crossed the lines of gender and age, in some cases allowing entire families to carve together providing an income while creating a tradition. Present Folk School Craft Manager Mary Doornbos noted that those still carving (around 14 or 15) do it mostly out of pride, pride for the craft and the tradition. The carvings they sell today exemplify poignantly the success of the founding Folk School principals.

At first glance some of the black and white photographs from early carving times look like men gathered around a table to play a game, the wooden figurines suggesting a game of chess perhaps. On further study the game pieces become the handicrafts of the famous Brasstown Carvers; the game becomes a sharing of the art of woodcarving together. One can almost hear a whispering Grundtvig in the background, the educational theorist whose philosophy inspired founders Olive Campbell and Marguerite Bidstrup:

“Education is not a process to be measured by academic grades and degrees. The humble tasks of farm, shop and home have a cultural value more fundamental than that of books. Education should not discredit such labor, but give it meaning, breadth and depth. It should link culture of toil and culture of books in the service of a better manhood. If it does not make a better man it is useless.”

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