An enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, Amanda Crowe was born in Murphy, North Carolina to an Anglo mother and Cherokee father. She was only four and a half years old when she began to draw and to carve. “I was barely big enough to handle a knife,” she said, “but I knew what I wanted to do—I guess it was part of my heritage.” Carving was something that Crowe grew up with; her brothers, Bill and Richard Crowe were both carvers. In grade school, she studied with her uncle, Goingback Chiltoskey. Betty Dupree, former manager of Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, remembered her as a schoolgirl with a knife in her hand. “She carried a knife to school, and I was so scared of her. Later on, I figured out she was carving even then.” By the time Crowe was eight years old, she was selling small carvings of her own.
Orphaned at an early age, Crowe was sent to Chicago to attend Hyde Park High School. In 1946, she was awarded a scholarship to attend the Art Institute of Chicago where she was introduced to modern sculpture. “During my sculpture studies at the Chicago Art Institute, I worked in clay, built up figures in plaster, cut a few pieces in stone, wrought metal sculpture, and carved wood.” Throughout her studies and her long career, wood remained her preferred material. “My favorite sculpture material is still wood, for working with it creates in me a wonderful feeling of joy which is not present when I work in any other medium.” Crowe explained her preference further; “To me, wood is the most pleasurable to the touch and the most responsive to tools,” she said. “The grain challenges me to create objects in three dimensions.” Crowe often looked for wood that had some unique aspect to it. “A mistake or flaw in the wood will improve your design,” she explained. “To me, a knot can be the best part.” Crowe finished her undergraduate degree and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts. Awarded a fellowship for foreign study in 1952, she traveled to the Instituto Allende in San Miguel, Mexico to study with Jose´ de Creeft, a sculptor best known for his bronze figure of Alice in Wonderland in New York’s Central Park.
Amanda Crowe using a mallet and chisel to rough out an animal form.
Amanda Crowe using a hand chisel to refine a large standing bear.
In 1953, Crowe came to Cherokee and set up a studio in the Painttown community. With funding from the Cherokee Historical Association, she was hired to teach woodcarving and sculpture at the Cherokee High School In a single day, she taught up to seventy-three students in the tenth through twelfth grades. She found teaching rewarding. “There is stimulation in helping others know the joy of creating their own things and in seeing them grow in their enthusiasm,” she remarked. She not only taught aesthetics and technique, but introduced students to the more entrepreneurial aspects of carving as well; in one semester, her students sold seven-hundred dollars worth of carvings. Crowe entered her students’ work in competitions and exhibitions, often taking home multiple prizes of recognition. In her forty years in the classroom, Crowe trained many of today’s carvers including Virgil Ledford, Lloyd Carl Owle, and the late John Wilnoty, Jr. Former student, Bud Smith said of her teaching, “Everyone that carves here learned from her.” Her dedication was legendary; she often spent time after classes and on weekends helping students find wood for their work. Her teaching extended into the community. With her partner Doris Coulter, Crowe produced carving kits complete with instructions and a block of wood cut to size. These were sold by mail order from the 1960s well into the 1980s.
By the time Amanda Crowe was thirty years old, she had amassed a number of prestigeous honors usually reserved for more mature artists. Her work was shown at the High Museum in Atlanta (1955) and the Mint Museum in Charlotte (1957). She participated in the Inter-Tribal Ceremonial Exhibit (1956 and 1957) as well as international expositions in New Dehli (1959) and Cairo (1961). In 1966, Crowe penned an article that was published in a national Girl Scout magazine. Titled “Whittle Awhile,” she gave step-by-step instruction to a wide audience. “With little more than a pocketknife, a block of wood, and a few basic instructions,” she wrote, “you can be on your way.” Explaining her process, she admonished her readers to be careful. “Both hands should be behind the cutting blades at all times,” she wrote. In this article aimed at young girls, she added, “If your brother has a good, sharp pockeknife, he may be willing to lend it to you. But you’ll proably want to invest in your own.”
In 1970, with funding from the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Amanda Crowe exhibited her work in the members’ gallery of Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual cooperative. She exhibited several ceramic pieces as well as a number of wood carvings in cherry, buckeye, mahagony, and walnut. Fifteen pieces of her work included popular animal carvings and three human figures: Eagle Dancer, Madonna and Child, and Reclining Figure. She prefered cherry and walnut for carving, and also worked in buckeye. The grain of the wood was an important visual element for her. “The grain changes its mind sometimes without warning,” she wrote. “If it does, follow it.”
Crowe often began the design of a piece with a cut-out paper sketch that illustrated a wide variety of movements and compositions. Certainly, she was best known for her carvings of bears. “Everybody in the country must have one of my bears,” she once said. Crowe’s bears were appealing because they were individual and anthropomorphic. She depicted them standing, walking, running, reaching, and sometimes balanced one upon another. She often made complicated compositions with multiple bears and bear families. Her style was somewhat abstract and lyrical; her sculpture relied on an indication of movement, rather than carved detail. She made animals both native and foreign: bulls, horses, and rabbits were included in her repertoire, as well as loons and giraffes. Western North Carolina had been known for carved animal figures since the 1930s when a carving program was begun at the John C. Campbell Folk School. Aware of the program at Brasstown, Crowe added to the popularity of the regional genre. “I used to think that Brasstown was really it,” she remarked.
Crowe was an avid outdoors woman who enjoyed fishing and hunting. She restored antique automobiles and once dismantled a log cabin and moved it to her property. She traveled widely as a student, teacher, and artist. She showed her work at fairs in Arizona and California and closer to home at the Craftsman’s Fair of the Southern Highlands in Gatlinburg and Asheville. In 1963, she was tapped by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board to teach carving in Mississippi for the Choctaw. In 1980, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In 1987, she was made a Life Member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. In 2000, she was the recipient of a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. In 2007, a collection of Crowe’s work, including tools and a series of “how to” guides, were donated posthumously to the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual permanent collection.
Excerpted from Cherokee Carvers: From the Hands of our Elders, 2013
“Amanda Crowe’s Carvings on Exhibition in Cherokee,” Asheville Citizen-Times (27 September 1970).
Bockhoff, Esther. “Cherokee Carvers: The New Tradition,” The Explorer 19.3 (1977): 4-11.
Crowe, Amanda. Curriculum Vitae, Southern Highland Craft Guild (24 April 1961).
Crowe, Amanda. “Whittle Awhile,” American Girl 49.7 (1966): 12-14.
Derks, Scott. “Artistry in Wood,” Wildlife in North Carolina (1981): 6-11.
DuPuy, Edward. Artisans of the Appalachians (Asheville: Miller Printing, 1967).
DuPuy, Edward. “Interview with Amanda Crowe,” Southern Highland Craft Guild (1965).
Gaynes, David. Artisans / Appalachia / USA (Boone, NC: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1977).
Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Sculpture and Carving by Amanda Crowe (Cherokee, NC: 1970).
Neal, Dale. “Carving was a lifelong love for Cherokee native,” Asheville Citizen-Times (29 September 2004).
Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual. Cherokee Artists 2: The Woodcarvers, Film (Cherokee, NC: 1994).
“Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee Receives Gift of Famed Carver’s Collection,” Fun Things to Do in the Mountains (September 2007): 38.
“Woman of the Week,” Asheville Citizen-Times (9 December 1957).