The rich history of an award-winning wood carver
By Shannan Mashburn • SMN Intern
Wood carver Cliff Hannah is deeply rooted in Western North Carolina.
The internationally renowned artist is from Sandy Mush and has family ties to Cataloochee, the pioneer community in Haywood County that is now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Hannah began handling wood at a young age and developed his passion for storybook characters into the art that has made his name known around the world.
Born in a log cabin in 1942, Hannah was the oldest of four siblings. He was expected to help with family chores as soon as he could swing a blade and began chopping firewood for the family stove at the age of five.
His grandfather showed him how to use a homemade knife to cut shavings from a larger block of wood to start a fresh fire in the morning.
“Our knives were not those new, shiny ones from the country store, but were made in the blacksmith shop on the farm,” Hannah said.
Hannah, who lives in Haywood County, describes his childhood as difficult. When he was in the third grade he contracted rheumatic fever, which left him unable to walk for a year. He lived his life around doctor’s visits, not knowing if he would die tomorrow.
His mother taught him how to draw and boosted his interest in art during this challenging period in his life.
Storybooks offered him the solace and comfort he needed to keep his spirits up. His mother would read to him and he would become lost in the amazing illustrations that each book offered and they became his inspiration.
Wood carving didn’t become a part of his life until October 1965 when an older gentleman came driving down his street. The stranger stopped in front of Hannah’s home and they began to talk.
Hannah retrieved a small chip of wood from the back of the man’s truck and started carving. This stranger happened to be a wood carver and asked Hannah if he knew how to carve.
When he said no, Hannah asked the stranger to become his mentor, but he refused his request. Instead, the man offered to let him watch as he carved.
“He just sat with me. I never actually had a teacher,” Hannah said.
The award-winning carver never looked back after that moment. His new hobby captured his passion and it grew into a profession that has brought him international acclaim.
“I became so enamored in it. I never got it out of my system, and I never want to,” Hannah said.
Today, Hannah mostly works with fireplace mantels, doors for cabins and sets like Noah’s ark and nativity scenes, but he first started out carving the characters from the story books his mother used to comfort him with in his childhood.
His first carvings were of Santa and Peter Rabbit, which won international acclaim in 1991.
Peter Rabbit was submitted into an international contest in Davenport, Iowa, at the urging of an editor from a wood-carving magazine. Hannah recalled packing his masterpiece into a UPS box and shipping it out only to have it returned a few days later.
When he opened the box “the first thing I saw was a blue ribbon with ridges on the top of the box and I like to have died,” Hannah said, “I couldn’t talk for a few days after that. It was pretty amazing.”
Peter Rabbit has even lived in the President of the North Carolina community college’s office for a while before continuing his travels.
Now, Hannah’s artwork can be found in Maine, Saudi Arabia, the Baltics and Lithuania as well as several other places around the world.
Hannah tries to make appearances at wood carving shows in neighboring states and is a guest teacher for seminars and colleges throughout the region.
Most of the carvings that he creates are made at the request of friends and family members. When Hannah has little to work on he, will carve Father Christmas or “some familiar critter of some kind.”
He has perfected the art where he can carve the average six-foot mantel in a day.
“If I start at eight in the morning I have a mantel at four,” said Hannah.
Even though is where his passion lies and what he spends most of his time doing, Hannah also enjoys music. He was a radio announcer for 41 years before he became so enamored in wood carving.
This world-class woodman will always stay true to his passion and nothing will stop him from sharing his gift with the world.