Folklife Heritage Recipient, Governor’s Arts Awards 2015
A self-identified “itinerant whittler,” folk craftsman Bill Henry has mastered over 200 forms and carved an estimated 20,000 pieces, many of which are on display in private and public collections, including the Smithsonian. His wood carvings include miniature tools, birdhouses, working wooden padlocks and more of what he describes as “Miniature Americana.” He demonstrated his whittling at the Smithsonian Folklife Festive during America’s Bicentennial in 1976 and again in 1983. Henry became a member of the Southern Highland Arts Guild in 1965 and a lifetime member in 1991. His service to the folk arts includes his charter membership of the Foothills Craft Guild, an organization for which he also served as the first president. He has won numerous awards and honors, including The Southern Arts Craft Guild’s Heritage Preservation Award in 2012.
Now 85, Henry has spent over 50 years representing Tennessee culture and crafts to the nation, not just as a practitioner but also as an advocate of the folk arts. Living up to his itinerant nature, he continues to travel a circuit through Tennessee and beyond, carving and sharing his devotion to southern folk art forms and the cultures from which they come. He has served as artist-in-residence at Callaway Gardens in Georgia and at Peter’s Valley in New Jersey and has also appeared at the National Folk Festival, the Mercer Folk Festival, the Fall Homecoming at the Museum of Appalachia and many more. A voracious student as well, in 1976 he apprenticed himself to whittler Alex Stewart of Hancock County where he learned the art of coopering, or making wooden barrels and pails, without the use of nails or other adhesives.
Another of Henry’s strengths is his ability to recognize traditional art forms and folk culture. Henry successfully nominated both mountain craftsman Alex Stewart and blacksmith Bea Hensley for National Heritage Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Longtime friend and The Heartland Series’ host Bill Landry says, “I do not believe anyone alive has done more in support of heritage preservation than Bill Henry.”
Born in a coal mining camp in Gatliff, Kentucky, Henry moved to Clairfield, Tennessee in 1939 and then to Oak Ridge as a teenager. After a stint away from home in the military, Henry returned to Oak Ridge where he has stayed to the present. He eventually became employed as a chemical operator for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Working in the Hot Cells Department of ORNL’s Operations Division, Henry’s responsibilities included running special tests at fixed intervals. In 1976, Henry took a leave of absence from ORNL to further develop his wood-working skill with Alex Stewart. He returned to ORNL and stayed until his retirement in 1986 all the while continuing to keep alive a once common, but now almost forgotten folk art.
For locals and visitors alike, Henry retains a kindness and modesty that make young and old feel comfortable, connected and curious about the old ways that he preserves and shares. The Knoxville News Sentinel’s Sam Venable, a longtime friend to and frequent observer of Henry, asserts that “every person he talks to comes away feeling like they have not only met a skilled craftsmen, but Southern Appalachian’s best in warmth and hospitality. Quite simply, there isn’t a pretentious bone in his body.”
Today Henry can still be found on his front porch on warm days. With legs crossed at the knee, glasses low on his nose and a band-aid on his thumb, he whittles with great concentration and sands finished pieces to meet his own high expectations.