Born in Murphy and raised in the area around Brasstown, Helen Gibson grew up in a community that included many woodcarvers. She says that she is often asked how she came to take up carving, as it is something that might commonly be seen as a man’s pastime. Gibson finds the question curious, as she has never thought of woodcarving as a male domain. Her mother, Fannie McClure, was her first teacher, and Mrs. McClure’s own mother helped by sanding the carved figures. Most of Gibson’s other important teachers, including her neighbor Fannie Ivester, were also women.
Gibson is known internationally as a master carver. She is also the co-author of several instruction books, most recently Carving Moses with Helen Gibson. The books document and teach in detail her techniques for carving the figures of Moses and St. Francis of Assisi, and the figures for her Nativity scenes. She also carves many non-religious subjects. Visited recently in her workshop, Gibson was working on a tiny, finely-detailed wooden babydoll, with legs and arms that moved freely on peg joints. A larger and even more intricate doll upstairs had peg joints not only at the hips and shoulders, but at the elbows and knees, allowing her to be placed in a sitting position, hands folded in her lap.
Gibson has been the resident carver at the John C. Campbell Folk School since 1990, and teaches regularly.