As soon as Liz Kelly got her driver’s license, she headed to the N.C. State University Crafts Center to learn how to make pottery on a wheel.
Kelly had grown up drawing and painting but wanted to venture into the world of throwing pots. She was home-schooled and found the craft center as an outlet for her teenage restlessness. “At the beginning, I didn’t have a vision,” she said. “It was just, ‘Will this survive through the kiln process?’”
Kelly, 32, is a third-generation Raleigh resident; her grandfather was a poultry science professor at N.C. State. When she was 18 years old, she moved to Asheville and then spent several years in Hawaii. She moved back to North Carolina to be closer to family not too long after she had daughter, now 10. Given her familial history and time away, she calls herself an “old school, new school” Raleigh resident.
She noted that Hawaii had no “dirt culture,” so the South’s rich history of pottery was another reason to come home. A return to pottery also meant a return to dedication. “I perceive clay as this medium to work in that I can never ever run out of things to learn,” she said. “I’m just going deeper and deeper into my understanding of the craft.”
After returning from Hawaii, she earned a bachelor’s degree in design studies from N.C. State’s College of Design in December 2014. Going back to school meant learning about the craft’s history and theory, which blends well with her entrepreneurial spirit. “The sales part is part of it for me,” she said. “I don’t want to be alone in my studio just making it all.” The combination of historical knowledge and a wish to connect with others means she enjoys creating as much as passing on useful vessels.
Her Boylan Heights light-filled studio has huge windows taking up most of the front, and shelves full of pottery running right behind the glass. Tumblers, coffee mugs and vases line up in neat rows. It is precisely this usefulness that Kelly loves about pottery, that people use what she makes in their homes, in their kitchens, on their back porches.
Kelly spent 16 years in the restaurant industry and still works as a bartender and server at Raleigh’s Capital Club 16. One can see how her tasks complement one another: her pottery provides a handmade way to serve handmade food. She spends the time needed to figure out just how big a glass needs to be to hold a full pint, a conscientiousness repeated throughout her work.
April will mark one year in her new studio space (which she shares with fellow clay enthusiasts Marina Bosetti and Gretchen Quinn). There’s a wheel and clay, bathroom and microwave. The move has marked a shift from selling her wares at local shops, fairs and online; this is a space in which to both sell and create.
And business is growing, which is not surprising to Leeann Hynes, one of the producers of The Handmade Market. “She’s constantly creating new beautiful things,” said Hynes, who used to own the shop Epona & Oak in Raleigh, where Kelly’s pottery became one of the top sellers. “She would start making things based on (the customers’) feedback. She would start experimenting.”
When asked about her craft, Kelly said she makes “pots for the people.” That make sense because not only does her pottery respect the history of craft and recall its utilitarian roots, it also more than survives the kiln.
Betsy Greer writes about craft and activism at craftivism.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Liz Kelly’s pottery is for sale online and at craft fairs as well as these Raleigh shops: Escazú Artisan Chocolates, 936 N. Blount St.; Ramble Supply Co., 123 E. Martin St.; and Visual Art Exchange, 309 W. Martin St. Prices range from $12-$95.