Often it (carving) has meant the sole source of a doctor’s bill…or food for my children. I am happy that I have the gift of carving and that the Folk School has given me the opportunity to use it.

This 1947 testimonial from Brasstown Carver, Hope Brown, helps express the stability that the carving cooperative brought to the Brasstown community. The craft of wood carving developed organically at the John C. Campbell Folk School. Our local folklore traces the beginning of the Brasstown Carvers to Mrs. Campbell, who witnessed a group of men on the porch of Fred O. Scroggs’ general store, idly whittlin’ with their pocket knives. When no spare wood was available, these self-proclaimed sons of rest would carve into the bench on which they sat. In an effort to preserve his bench, Fred O. drove nails into the length of the bench, which persistent carvers worked around. Mrs. Campbell saw the potential skill and productivity in these men and provided them with blocks of wood and direction.

This photograph, taken by Doris Ulmann in 1933 or 1934, shows John Jacob Niles and Olive Dame Campbell examining hand carved animals produced at the John C. Campbell Folk School during the early 1930s. These carvings were most likely produced and sold through the school’s woodcarving cooperative that later became known as the Brasstown Carvers. Campbell was founded and director of the Folk School. Niles (1892-1980) was a folksinger, instrument maker, and ballad collector who accompanied and assisted Doris Ulmann on her photography trips through Appalachia. Niles and Ulmann came to the Brasstown, N.C. area in 1933 and 1934. Niles also served as Music Director at the Folk School in 1935.

This picture shows Murrial Galt Martin, known as Murray Martin, with a large carving of a goose. This photograph was taken from a booklet published by the John C. Campbell Folk School in 1990 titled “The Brasstown Carvers” with text by Bill Biggers, photographs by Werner Kahn and Bill Biggers.

The Brasstown Carvers flourished under the leadership of Murrial Decker Martin, who was hired as the craft teacher in 1935. As an occupational therapist, Murray had experience teaching both weaving and carving. Murray’s designs of mad mules, geese, pigs, dogs, and other animals observed on the farm, have made the carvings nationally recognizable. Murray provided carvers from a radius of ten miles with blocks sawed out at the school’s woodshop. Carvers would walk to the school weekly to pick up blanks, drop off finished products, and meet with Murray and other carvers for informal critiques. This social setting was conducive to discussions about politics, local issues, farm practices, and topics of a greater scope, further uniting the community.

Murray’s leadership, as well as increasingly stressful economic conditions, encouraged more women to take up carving. Traditionally wives would be involved in the sanding and finishing process, while husbands were the real carvers. However, in the 1940s, it was quite common for women to hold their own as carvers. The supplemented income that carving brought to these farming families was enough incentive for anyone to be willing to learn the skill. A notable case of success brought on by carving is the Hensley family. Hayden and Bonnie Logan Hensley were early students and carvers at the Folk School. Their supplemental carving income allowed them to purchase a home which they referred to as the house that carving built. Although the economic benefits certainly motivated carvers, they stressed that they carved for the pure joy of it.

This photograph shows woodcarvers working together and getting instruction on the campus of John C. Campbell Folk School during the 1940s. The woodcarving cooperative, later known as the Brasstown Carvers, was one of the school’s first economic development projects. Carvers would receive wood and instruction from the school and the school would then purchase the finished carvings for resale. The back of the photograph reads,” A lesson under the big red oak in front of Keith House- “Big Brasstown” valley and mountain beyond.” The image was taken by the North Carolina State News Bureau in Raleigh, N.C.

Woodcarving led by Martin

While the height of success for the Brasstown Carvers was reached in the 1930s and 1940s, with well-recognized names such as Glenn and Hope Brown, John, Jack, and Ben Hall, Nolan Beaver, and Dot Reece, the tradition of the Brasstown Carvers is thoroughly alive today. Second generation carver Helen Gibson currently serves as the resident artist for woodcarving.

Today’s Brasstown Carvers group includes Helen Gibson, Richard Carter, Carolyn Anderson, Edward Hall, and Terrence Fairies. Each carver produces work and then delivers it to the Folk School Craft Shop twice a month.

This c. 1930s fruit woodcarving of St. Francis of Assisi was done by Olive Dame Campbell and given to Marian Heard. Campbell did a second carving that was given to Louise Pitman. It helped to popularize the subject for the Brasstown Carvers of John C. Campbell Folk School.

These 1930s carved farm animals are a rarity among John C. Campbell Folk School carvings in that they are painted. Carvings sold through the school’s woodcarving cooperative, known as the Brasstown Carvers, were typically farm animals that were carved, filed, and sanded to smooth finish. It is likely that these painted farm animals may have been a special order or a prototype, but it is not likely that they were a typical sales item. The carver(s) are unknown.

This promotional postcard was produced by the John C. Campbell Folk School in the 1940s. It features woodcarvings done by the school’s woodcarving cooperative which became known as the Brasstown Carvers. The original photograph was taken by Betty Denash.

This photograph taken around 1930 shows five early students of the John C. Campbell Folk School sitting on a fence and carving small figures. The carvers are, from left to right, Ray Lee, Douglas Smith, Dub Martin, Tom McLeymore, and Rome Hampton. These carvers produced and sold carvings through the school’s woodcarving cooperative which later became known as the Brasstown Carvers.

This photograph shows four early students of the John C. Campbell Folk School sitting on the steps of the Keith House, carving small figures. Then men are, from left to right, Nolan Beaver, J.A. Morris, Avery Beaver, and Pearlie Fleming. The Brasstown Carvers became nationally known under the leadership of Murrial “Murray” Martin, who was the craft teacher at the Folk School from 1935-1973.

This postcard, titled “The seeing eyes of the instructor teach the feeling hands to carve”, is part of a promotional packet of postcards was produced by the John C. Campbell Folk School upon its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1950. The folder contains ten photographic postcards documenting the school’s activities including farming, dyeing, metalwork, woodcarving, woodworking, singing and storytelling. The original photographs were taken by Betty Denash, in years prior to publication. The folder also includes a textual overview written by Howard Kester, who served as the Folk School director in 1951.

This mounted black and white photograph shows three women carvers working on small animals. In the early 1930’s a cooperative for woodcarvers developed at the John C. Campbell Folk School; this group eventually became known as the Brasstown Carvers. Members in the cooperative received training and supplies from the Folk School. Some members would carve the figures and others would sand and finish the pieces. The title “A New Carver” was written on photograph’s mount.

A. Ben Hall was one of the early Brasstown Carvers. This color photograph was taken in July of 1949 by Bernice Stevens at the Craftsman’s Fair of the Southern Highlands in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

This picture shows Murrial Galt Martin, known as Murray Martin, with a large carving of a goose. This photograph was taken from a booklet published by the John C. Campbell Folk School in 1990 titled “The Brasstown Carvers” with text by Bill Biggers, photographs by Werner Kahn and Bill Biggers.

This carved duck is a rare example of work made by Murray Martin. The piece, exact date unknown, is carved from apple wood and sanded to a smooth finish; this duck is typical of work produced at the Folk School. During her tenure at the Folk School, Martin drew designs on blocks of wood that the school got free from the Tennessee Valley Authority as they cleared land for rural electrification.

Stay tuned for more parts to this series on the Brasstown Carvers. Next post we will meet some more of the carvers and see samples of their carvings.

A big thanks to the Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library for photos and caption information. Be sure to visit the online Craft Revival Archive documenting the Craft Revival movement that occurred in western North Carolina from 1895 to1945. The website is a virtual collection of documents, photographs, craft objects, and artifacts that tells the story of the Craft Revival. It is free, open to the public to access, and maintained by Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library. It’s like having our History Center in your own home! Visit the John C. Campbell Folk School Collection Guide to see documents specific to the Folk School.

View all upcoming Folk School woodcarving classes on the Folk School website.

Learn more about the Folk School Craft Shop where you can purchase work by the Brasstown Carvers.

John C. Campbell Folk School
About John C. Campbell Folk School

The Folk School transforms lives, bringing people together in a nurturing environment for experiences in learning and community life that spark self-discovery. Located in scenic Brasstown, North Carolina, the Folk School offers year-round weeklong and weekend classes for adults in craft, art, music, dance, cooking, gardening, nature studies, photography and writing.