Helen Harmon-Cargile’s cornhusk dolls have decorated a White House Christmas tree, become part of a Smithsonian Institution collection and gone home with famous people.
Harmon-Cargile, a staff member in the College of Business Administration, is also an avid crafter and teaches handcrafts. Over the years, cornhusk dolls have become her specialty.
Her love of crafts goes way back. She studied art education at UT Knoxville where she worked in various art media, then continued working with crafts after college. She started working with cornhusks by creating simple flowers, then moved on to cornhusk dolls. "When I first saw cornhusk dolls, I was fascinated," Harmon-Cargile said. "I attended a craft fair and met wonderful cornhusk doll makers. Meeting them made an impression on me that was life-changing."
In 1993, First Lady Hillary Clinton invited members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild to create pieces for an angel-themed Christmas tree. Harmon-Cargile, a member of the guild, crafted a simple, natural cornhusk doll with wings and a dream catcher.
Each year, the White House Christmas Tree is decorated in a theme chosen by the First Lady, often with handcrafted ornaments from all over the country. That year, Harmon-Cargile’s cornhusk doll was one of 7,500 fiber, wood, metal, glass and ceramic angels made by 3,000 craft guild members nationwide. They decorated the 18-foot Fraser fir in the White House’s Blue Room.
After the holidays, Harmon-Cargile’s doll, along with all of the other handcrafted angel ornaments, was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
The following year, Tipper Gore, wife of then-Vice President Al Gore, requested an ornament from Harmon-Cargile for the Gore family. "The doll I created for Vice President and Mrs. Gore’s home was also an angel," Harmon-Cargile said. "She stood about 10 inches tall and held a glass snowflake. I crocheted her wings and sash from ecru thread."
In addition to creating cornhusk angels, Harmon-Cargile specializes in cornhusk Appalachian and Native American figures. Her work has been featured in regional and craft magazines and newspapers throughout the southeastern United States.
Harmon-Cargile’s dolls became part of actor Robert Redford’s collection when one of his friends purchased several dolls from Southern Highland Craft Guild shops as gifts. Other buyers include the late Fred Rogers, host of the children’s television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and musicians Lyle Lovett and Victor Wooten of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
She has sold her work at many festivals and fairs through craft organizations, including the Southern Highland Craft Guild shops in Gatlinburg, Middlesboro, Asheville and Blowing Rock. Now, Harmon-Cargile creates her cornhusk dolls by commission only.
Her angels and Appalachian dolls usually are about 10 inches tall and sell for about $25. The detailed Native American figures are up to 14 inches tall, and their prices range from $80 to nearly $600.
Harmon-Cargile has taught arts and crafts classes through organizations such as the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. Her students have come from all over the U.S. to learn the history of dollmaking, materials that can be used and how to dye cornhusks.
As Harmon-Cargile became proficient as a doll maker, she researched doll-making history and learned that cornhusk dolls were originally made by Native Americans. "I have a theory that the first to make them were the Incas, followed by Great Lakes Iroquois. The dolls were created for ceremonial use, though, not as children’s toys. Native American children were thought to have imitated the doll-making process, but even so, the figures were never used as toys."
Harmon-Cargile notes that American colonists and settlers learned many skills from Native Americans, including doll making, which eventually became a popular American handicraft. Contributing to that popularity was the fact that a child could make her own doll from cornhusks simply by folding and tying.
Harmon-Cargile prefers to teach small classes, since beginning students need individual assistance with their dolls. She also is writing a book on her craft, since few books are available on the topic of cornhusk dolls. The book will include topics she covers in her classes.
In Harmon-Cargile’s early doll-making days, she ordered several 50-pound bales of husks at a time for the dolls and doll clothing. Today there are over 1,000 varieties of corn grown either for the kernels or the husks. FDA-approved tamale husks are the cleanest and best for arts and crafts, Harmon-Cargile said. These husks are used for ropes, mats, baskets, flowers, dolls and other crafts, and today they’re available in grocery stores. Harmon-Cargile uses wool, flax, and corn silk for the dolls’ hair, gleaning the corn silk from farmers’ fields at harvest.
Harmon-Cargile is Executive MBA program coordinator, Center for Executive Education in the College of Business Administration. This September, Harmon-Cargile accompanied the group to Warsaw, Poland; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Verona, Italy. She is married to Bob Cargile, assistant director of the Office of Research.