Some 30 years ago, while on his lunch breaks at the former Stanley Furniture factory in Robbinsville, Billy Welch would wade through discarded scraps of ash and beech wood, fishing out salvageable blocks that he knew had more to offer. In those pieces, he saw invisible lines that revealed to him the forms that he would then free with his knife.
Fresh out of high school, Welch didn’t have a teacher to show him how to carve, so he taught himself to follow the story within the wood. He read the grain, studied it. Turned its imperfections into distinguishing characteristics that brought the wood to life.
Welch’s grandmother, a basket maker, was his inspiration. She not only taught him an appreciation for art and for crafts, but also showed him how to gather natural materials used in every step of the process. “I took away the art of it — collecting, gathering, producing a product from a tree,” Welch says.
The floor of Billy Welch’s workshop in Snowbird is covered in wood shavings and stacked with raw lumber. His years of carving and up to 40 hours spent on each piece yield works of art. photograph by Tim Robison
As an enrolled citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Welch’s attention turned to carving masks — which have come to define his career — when he was commissioned in 1994 to produce a set of clan masks for the new casino. One of his largest mask series features seven Paulownia wood mask carvings that depict each of the traditional Cherokee clans: Long Hair, Blue, Wolf, Wild Potato, Deer, Bird, and Paint. Each clan represents separate strengths and responsibilities within the tribe. Historically, clans are matrilineal, which means that the clan to which an individual belongs is based on their mother’s lineage.
It is easy to forget that these masks, now detailed and polished, were born of rough-hewn logs with no patterns or guides as to what they would become. The masks’ eyes — merely two slits, like tears that have been laid sideways, following the loops of the wood — possess a sense of steady perception that tends to come from experience. Each carved stroke follows the grain as if unfolding the masks’ stories of tradition, culture, and reverence along a predetermined map.
For a recent booger mask — used in the traditional Cherokee booger dance ceremony to ward off evil or harmful energies — Welch used a soft, golden wood to create a simple, smooth mask with a distinctive large, gaping mouth. He carved the mask from a piece of wood that had been discarded because it had a branch growing from it. He’d thought the wood useless, but his eyes kept going back to it. Soon, he saw a face forming, beginning with the mouth. He picked up the wood and whittled until it fully revealed itself. This one-time castoff had something to say.
Over decades of honing his craft, Welch has become an expert carver and earned a reputation as one of the most talented Cherokee mask makers in Eastern Band history. His masks have also garnered national attention.
In 2018, Welch traveled to New York City to exhibit his masks at a gallery and speak at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. With his grandson by his side, Welch and his work were met with enthusiasm and admiration. He had brought between 60 and 70 masks with him on the trip, including one that his grandson remarked looked like a charging bull. Welch describes the piece as “abstract,” but concedes that he can see the image that his grandson saw. “See, it’s crooked,” Welch says. “But it looks just like it’s charging.”
Welch taught himself to read the grain of Paulownia wood to follow the lines until the form inside reveals itself. photograph by Tim Robison
Like in his early days at the furniture factory, Welch had chosen a discarded piece of wood that would later become the “bull mask.” As a completed work, it found an audience at the Smithsonian, near where the famed “Charging Bull” bronze statue stands in the Financial District. That statue symbolizes fierce optimism and prosperity, and, by all accounts, the New York show was about to do the same for Welch. But then, tragedy struck.
Soon after Welch returned to North Carolina, the house where Welch’s dozens of masks were being stored burned down. Years of work was destroyed. The bull mask was one of only a few that survived.
“It didn’t hinder me,” he says of the fire. “I just kind of went on.” The loss did, however, force him to once again begin work without a pattern.
In 2011, Welch opened his store, Hunting Boy Wood Carving, in Snowbird, the community where he grew up and the place where his ancestors had lived for generations. He had the chance to open in downtown Robbinsville, a town with far more traffic flow, but Welch wanted anyone who buys a mask to be able to say they bought it in the Qualla Boundary — on “Indian land.”
Snowbird is a community in the Qualla Boundary, but the area is not one contiguous parcel — it spans five different counties, including Graham, where Snowbird is located. Snowbird’s relative isolation from the remainder of the tribe’s population resulted in a different dialect of the Cherokee language and a history unto itself.
Welch wanted anyone who buys a mask to be able to say they bought it on “Indian land.”
Welch believes that the power and the strength of the mask represent the people of Snowbird, and those attributes stay with each mask.
For Welch, his work is not about creating art so much as it is practicing his culture and sharing Cherokee history. One cannot separate Welch’s work from the land and the ethos of the people who have called Snowbird home for thousands of years.
“It’s a dying art,” he says. “All of it is, including our language.” But the masks, he hopes, are a way to pass along the story of the Cherokee, of Snowbird.
Welch is in his ninth year as an instructor at Robbinsville High School. He’s proud to be a teacher for the next generation — the type of teacher he never had. Originally, he was asked to teach just one wood-carving class, but after more than 60 students signed up, the principal knew that the school would need more of Welch. Class offerings have since expanded to include other traditional Cherokee arts and crafts, including basket weaving and beadwork. And he teaches students how to gather raw materials for dyes — including bloodroot and Indian paintbrush flowers — for dyes the way his grandmother did.
Welch’s Snowbird heritage lives in his masks and also in the knowledge that he passes down to each successive generation. His work as a teacher and carver ties generations of Cherokees to their culture and to a tradition that might otherwise be lost to time.
Masks on display at the Cherokee Preservation Foundation are works of art, but masks like these weren’t originally intended to hang on walls. Masks also play a prominent role in Cherokee ceremonies. photograph by Tim Robison
“I just hope someone carries it on,” Welch says. “From 1997 to 2016, [the school was] without Cherokee art and culture. Until I came.”
In his classroom at the end of the school day, he admits that “you can’t teach students like you used to.” There are new distractions. He knows that an hour and a half a day is not enough time for students to learn the totality of the art form.
Then, Welch recalls a student who truly embraced his lessons. The student carved a full set of clan masks for his senior project, and then went on to make several other sets. Welch hopes that the skills the student learned will stick with him down the road. “I feel like a student like that knows enough that maybe later in life, he’ll come back to it,” he says.
This is the patience of a Cherokee wood carver — a maker of masks that don’t conceal so much as they reveal and, in turn, help preserve a culture.