By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Behind a house in Del Ray in a shed-turned-home-studio, Stephen Lally leans over his pottery wheel, sculpting and shaping art out of wet clay like a homespun Prometheus.
The studio is full of recently fired ceramics, discarded ideas and gifts from fellow potters, all packed on shelves and into plastic bins next to his electric kiln. Like the pottery wheel on which raw earth becomes craft goods, Lally’s mind is always spinning.
Over the past 30 years, Lally, a member of Del Ray Artisans since he moved to the neighborhood in 1997, has honed wood firing – an unusual, challenging method of making ceramics – to create pots, jugs and mugs.
The process, which requires raising a wood-fueled kiln to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, results in ceramics that remain, in both form and function, closely connected to the earth and fire that forged them.
“What I like in the clay is when I throw a pot on the wheel and it first comes off the wheel fresh. The way the clay looks at that time is just really something,” Lally said. “So, this is a way you capture it, or most closely capture it.”
Lally grew up in Boulder, Colorado and attended the University of Colorado, where he unexpectedly found one of the country’s best ceramics programs. He never officially entered an arts program, but he found himself drawn to clay.
“I had done different things – I had done sculpture, drawing and jewelry making – but there was a way that clay just felt,” Lally said. “I felt much more connected to that.”
It wasn’t uncommon to find Lally at the school’s ceramics studio, spinning the wheel late into the night. At first, the act of spinning and sculpting clay was a fight, one that Lally often lost at the expense of malformed mounds of wet clay.
“The analogy of riding a bike [is] fairly apt because when you first get on a bike … it’s so hard and then at a certain point it’s like, ‘OK, now I get it,’” Lally said. “Then the wheel becomes a tool and not so much something you’re fighting or struggling with.”
His mind just seemed suited to ceramics work, Lally said. “A very spatial person,” Lally enjoyed imagining objects and flipping them around in his mind.
It helped that one of Lally’s first ceramics teachers, Wayne Branum, was a student of the form-focused Minnesota school of pottery.
“It has English and Japanese roots,” Lally said. “If you look at some of the very traditional pots that were made in England – things like the medieval jugs or some of the country crock – what you see is very strong form and strong design. It’s not a frilly pot. Similarly, in Japan, there’s different aesthetic threads, but one of them has been a very form focused one. There’s a long history, also, of wood firing.”
Lally went on to receive a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he continued making pottery.
After grad school, Lally committed wholeheartedly to learning his craft. He attended Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina and Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
“For me, what was really useful and helpful was having somebody looking at your work, giving you critique about your work and sort of asking you the kind of questions like, ‘Well, what are you trying to do? Why are you doing this?’” Lally said.
Lally eventually moved to Alexandria around 1987 – and Del Ray in 1997 – where he’s become a familiar presence at Torpedo Factory and Del Ray Artisans showings.
Lally’s first experience with wood firing at the University of Colorado stuck with him.
This “crazy way of firing,” as Lally called it, consumes two cords of wood in 24 hours, the same amount of wood most people consume in an entire winter. Lally travels to Chester Springs, Pennsylvania and Baltimore, Maryland to attend communal wood firings with a roster of potters he’s come to know over the years.
Unlike electric or gas firing, which is a solitary experience, wood firing requires cooperation. People have to stoke the kiln every three to five minutes to maintain the heat. It’s hard work, but the end result is worth it, Lally said.
“The color that you see on the clay – the browns, the orange – that’s all from the flame going across and bringing the iron to the surface,” Lally said. “You can see the path of the flame, but as the ash comes in, it actually comes down like snow but it also goes like a stream. It melts and forms a glass because there’s the trace minerals in the wood that are glass formers.”
Wood firing emphasizes the natural qualities of the clay, leaving Lally’s pieces glazed but somewhat naked in shape and form.
There’s an honesty to Lally’s work, as he doesn’t try to mask imperfections. Some of the handles look like they’ve been attached because they have been attached. Lally’s process, the work he puts into making his art and the clay itself, are front and center, he said.
Lally uses a twisted wire to slice pieces off of raw clay on the wheel. The texture of the wire leaves a permanent record, a shell-like pattern, on the underside of his mug. The grooves and marks, things that are often erased on mass-produced mugs, are like birthmarks, a connection to Lally and the Earth.
“You have no sense of the skin or structure or bone,” Lally said, pointing to an industrially-designed coffee mug. “… There’s a way that [with] wood firing you really get to see the pot and the clay in a way that if you glaze it all the way down you lose that.”
Lally strives to emphasize both form and function in his work. He designs his pieces with a specific aesthetic in mind, but they are useless if they have no utilitarian value.
Using one of his mugs as an example, Lally points out how the bone-like ribbing of the mug is not only stylish but functional, especially for people who like to hold their mugs with two hands. The volcanically narrow top that slopes down into a wider base also provides stability.
Ceramics, especially the kind that Lally makes, are meant to be used, Lally said. If he’s successful, a mug becomes more than just an object to its owner. Over time, that mug becomes an extension of its owner. A bond is forged through daily rituals – on cold winter mornings or muggy summer nights – to the point where, once lost, it can seem irreplaceable.
“If you think about it, there’s nothing more intimate than the cups that you drink out of,” Lally said. “They sort of become a part of your life, and so it’s interesting that so many people use what I would say are sterile, dead, industrially designed mugs that work well, first and foremost, for production.”
In the years after he came to Alexandria, Lally taught pottery classes at the Durant Center as part of a city program and volunteered at the Art League, where he met his wife, a poet and publisher.
When kids came into the picture, Lally cut down on his wood-firing trips, but as his kids have gotten older – his daughter was recently named T.C. Williams High School’s poet laureate – he’s found time to return to the kiln.
He’s participated in more national pottery shows and has reconnected with Del Ray Artisans; he now serves as the organization’s treasurer.
“It’s a neat organization. I’ve liked it a lot,” Lally said. “It’s a very diverse one in terms of the folks who are there and people at different levels, sort of where they are with their art.”
Wood firing is a challenging way to go about making pottery. There are far easier methods – and Lally uses them as well. But, 30 years later, wood firing, the confluence of fire, earth and wood, remains Lally’s method of choice. He’s forged lasting friendships in those flames, along with pottery that still holds a meaningful place in peoples’ homes and hearts.
“I saw on Instagram recently somebody who used to live in this area 20 some years ago and he’s posting, ‘Oh, here’s my Lally mug,’” Lally said. “I thought, ‘That’s cool. I hadn’t seen that thing in 20 something years, and yet it’s part of your life.’”