Like many traditional artists, Cherokee carver Amanda Crowe first learned her craft by watching others. She was drawing and carving by the age of four, and she was selling her carvings of animals and birds by the age of eight. “I was barely big enough to handle a knife,” she says, “but I knew what I wanted to do so I just whittled away. I guess it was part of my heritage.”
Her talent did not go unrecognized, and she eventually left North Carolina and completed high school in Chicago. From there she went on scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago where she earned a master of Fine Arts degree, followed by study in Mexico with Jose de Creeft. Her decision to return to the Qualla Boundary in the early 1950s was a turning point in her own life and in that of the tribal community. She was hired by the Cherokee Historical Association to teach art and carving at Cherokee High School, and she taught there for almost forty years.
Going home and giving something back to her people seemed natural to Amanda Crowe. That decision, said one of her former students, led to the transformation of carving in Cherokee. What had been a minor craft became a virtual art industry, in large part because of her influence as a teacher. Helping students achieve their own goals of learning to carve and sculpt in wood and stone and seeing many of these same students continue their work after graduation became a deep source of pride for her.
She occasionally worked in stone and clay, but wood was her favorite medium. “I carve because I love to do it,” she said. “The movement of the grains—they almost seem alive under your hands—and the beautiful tones and textures all add life to the figures you whittle.” In her hands, blocks of wild cherry, buckeye, and black walnut took on the shapes of deer, owls, geese, raccoons, and—her signature pieces—bears. “Everybody in the country must have one of my bears,” she said jokingly.
Amanda Crowe successfully combined the roles of artist and teacher and received numerous honors and awards for her work, including a 2000 North Carolina Heritage Award. She exhibited carvings at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Mint Museum in Charlotte, the Atlanta Art Museum, the Denver Museum of Art, and at locations in England and Germany. Her pieces are in many permanent collections, including those at the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Department of the Interior. She was quick to say, however, that her most satisfying reward was knowing that she taught hundreds of Cherokee students to carry on the tradition of their ancestors.