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Clifton Garrish: fulfilling his brother’s woodcarving dream

Clifton Garrish with one of his many carved works.

Clifton Garrish with one of his many carved works. Photo by Pat Garber

By Pat Garber

Raymond Garrish had a dream of carving beautiful roses.

He died in 1999, only 44 years old, of a heart attack, and never achieved that dream.

His younger brother Clifton loved carving with Raymond, but he set his carving tools aside at his brother’s death. He continued working with wood, but he did not have the heart to continue carving without his brother.  

A few months ago, Clifton decided that he wanted to try and fulfill his brother’s dream. The result was an exquisite, beautifully formed rose, so natural-looking that you can almost smell it.

If you listen to live music on Ocracoke Island, you probably have seen and heard Clifton. He plays a mean bass guitar, often joining in with his older brother’s group “Martin and Friends.”

If you own a house here, you may have hired him to build cabinets or do some other fine carpentry work. 

Only his close friends and family know that he is a talented wood carver.

Now that he has begun carving again, he plans to continue, and has already carved several more roses, as well as chains with interlocking links.

Clifton Garrish

Raymonds Rose, right, and the patterns used to create it. Photo by Pat Garber.

Clifton, age 48, began carving while in junior high at Ocracoke School. He spent hours out in the work shop behind his family’s home, working alongside Raymond, who was 12 years older. Clifton’s carvings, many of them hand-painted, fill a beautiful glass cabinet, also made by him, in his living room.

His decoys and other works of art have become treasured gifts of friends and family. He has seldom tried to market them, but carves for the pure joy of it.

“Wood-working,” he says, “is my true love.”

Clifton, Martin and sister Janie, come from an old and respected island family. His mother Hazel’s father, Harvey Wahab, was in the Coast Guard here. When the British ship the Bedfordshire was blown up by German U-boats in World War II, Harvey helped collect the bodies that washed up on shore. He prepared the sailors for burial in what is now known as the British Cemetery.  

Clifton’s great-uncle, Stanley Wahab, was instrumental in many Ocracoke projects. He built and operated its first moving-picture show and brought over the first automobile. He built the first ice plant and the first electric plant, as well as Blackbeard’s Lodge, the Island Inn, a skating rink and the Spanish Casino.

Clifton’s grandfather, Preston Garrish, was a respected carpenter on Ocracoke.  He, working with his son Powers, built the house which became the family home and where Clifton and Janie still live.  On the island, he played guitar with the original Graveyard Band, and his three sons also learned to play guitar.

His children may have inherited his talent for music, but they did not choose to follow his work career that took him off island.

They love Ocracoke and are happy to stay on the island. Clifton says he has never been off the island for more than six days and has never been farther west than Greensboro. (He does love basketball, though. So he goes to Chapel Hill for Tarheel games.)

Clifiton with a guitar he made. Photo by Pat Garber.

Clifton with a guitar he made. Photo by Pat Garber.

Janie can beat that; she has never been farther from home than “Little” Washington. Neither can see any reason to leave the home, family and friends they love right here.

In his early teens, Clifton picked up the bass guitar, often playing along with his brothers.

“It was the only way I could get in at Three Quarter Time,” he explains, “since I was underage. I got to see Bo Diddly there, when I was in 12th grade.”  (Three Quarter Time was the original occupant of the Community Center building.)

Martin and Clifton played in the revised Graveyard Band during the 1980s and later with the Ocracoke Rockers.

This season “Martin and Friends,” including Clifton, will perform at the Ocracoke Oyster Company, the Jolly Roger and Coyote Den.  Clifton often plays a guitar he made.

Clifton’s woodwork can be seen all over the island. He built the altar for the Assembly of God Church and the bible case for the Methodist Church.

He custom-built the desk Janie uses in the water plant office, and the kitchen cabinets in the house they share.

He often re-builds and refinishes furniture picked up at the dump. He and his brother Raymond made carving tools out of old kitchen knives, and Clifton still does most of his carving using hand tools. His work shop is full of scrap wood and other recycled items.

Wooden “I don’t like change, and I keep everything,” he laughs. “I guess I’m a pack rat.”   

Clifton Garrishs Christmas yard ornaments. Photo by Janie Garrish

Christmas yard ornament by Clifton Garrish. Photo by Janie Garrish

Clifton Garrish

Another of Clifton Garrishs Christmas yard ornaments. Photo by Janie Garrish