Cumberland County artist Polly Page is among the 2013 Governor's Arts Awards recipients, the state's highest honor in the arts. Page is being recognized with the Folklife Heritage Award.
The 2013 Governor's Arts Awards will be presented by Gov. Bill Haslam and First Lady Crissy Haslam in a special ceremony produced by the Tennessee Arts Commission, set for April 23. Page plans to attend with her daughter, Gretta Pugh; son-in-law, Herald; and a number of close family friends. A reception in Pleasant Hill will be held at a later date.
"We congratulate each recipient of the 2013 Governor's Arts Awards," said Anne Pope, executive director of the Tennessee Arts Commission. "These exceptional individuals represent excellence in the arts and illustrate the rich diversity of our state's cultural heritage. It's gratifying to see their many accomplishments recognized in such a special way."
Page, now 94, is a woodcarver and dollmaker from the Pleasant Hill community in Cumberland County. Page has been a noted figure in traditional Tennessee crafts since World War II. Trained in the craft program at the Appalachian social mission school of Pleasant Hill Academy, she is known for a variety of animal and human figures, including her signature Aunt Jenny and Uncle Pink dolls.
"Aunt Jenny, Uncle Pink, farm animals, nativity figures — these wooden carvings under the skilled hands of Polly Page, have captured a significant time period in Tennessee culture and history," said Sharron Eckert, who nominated Page for the award. "Polly's carvings are as true-to-life as she knew it."
The Aunt Jenny character is seen with her with her washing tub, liquid soap and clothesline. Page sews the dresses from hand-woven cloth. The ducks and geese she carves are so life-like it seems feathers could almost be picked for a feather bed.
Page's characters are treasured by collectors around the world and they reside in the Smithsonian, folk art museums and the Art Circle Public Library in Crossville. She is one of 25 persons recognized and honored by the Tennessee Arts Commission's book and exhibit Tradition: Tennessee Lives and Legacies, profiling those who actively preserve folk traditions.
The walls of Page's rustic studio in Pleasant Hill are filled with photographs of both famous celebrities and of close family and friends who have visited with her throughout the years. She has scrapbooks filled to overflowing with newspaper articles, yellowing with age and containing recognition documents and letters, including some from former Tennessee governors, senators and representatives. Her guest book contains names of visitors from every state in the United States and at least 27 countries. She has been featured on television programs many times.
Page's 90-plus-year-old eyes still twinkle when she tells of teaching actress Jane Fonda how to properly hold a carving knife in preparation for the movie, The Dollmaker. Fonda found Page through her business partner Julie LaFond's mother, who was on the governing board of the Uplands Retirement Village in Pleasant Hill and knew of Page's reputation as an experienced and authentic wood carver. Among the stack of scrapbooks, Page can readily locate the photographs of herself, Fonda and Dolly Parton standing in her yard, eyes squinting toward the camera with the same "say cheese" grin everyone has taken at some point.
Polly speaks with admiration, respect and love for her long-time mentor and friend, Miss Margaret Campbell, former master art teacher at Pleasant Hill Academy. Campbell taught art design, color, technique and "appreciation" often connected with nature and the world around the students.
"Pleasant Hill Academy and Margaret Campbell gave Polly the inspiration and skills needed that provided her with a lifetime of carving experiences," said Eckert. "Then Polly used her local surroundings to design characters from the people, animals and settings that she knew and loved. As she herself was encouraged and supported throughout her life, Polly Page has continued to encourage the promotion of arts and crafts for those wanting to learn."
Page said of her teaching, "My whole life — that was my purpose. I don't regret a thing I've done, but I think I done my part."
In a 2003 interview with Nancy Hamm, Page said, "I tell people there's definitely a difference between whittling and carving. Both of them make shavings; one of them is producing, the other is just shaving."
When Page's original knives from Sears and Roebuck catalog were discontinued, she had to switch to J.C. Penney, and then to a store "Between here and Gatlinburg."
In describing one of her class sessions, Page would say to her students, "Now you have to learn to make that knife do what you want it to do. It will do what you want it to do but you have to make it do that."
At one time, Page had 22 workers in her small, rustic shop in Pleasant Hill. In addition to a number of knives, Page's shop contains two jigsaws, three band saws, a variety of hand saws and other tools. Her favorite woods to work are red cedar, buckeye and white walnut. They were once plentiful in local sawmills, but recently she has gone to the Smokies to obtain her wood.
Page is concerned because at this time, there is no one continuing her style of carving. Those who are lucky enough to have even one of Page's carvings in their possession are truly fortunate.
"Her works must continue to be preserved in homes, galleries and museums as a testimony to our Tennessee heritage and culture," said Eckert.
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Sharron Eckert, Nancy Hamm, Jean Clark and a Greg Ray, a friend of Polly Page's granddaughter, Robin Abram, contributed to this article.