The People’s Potter: Liz Kelly Creates Soft, Sturdy Tableware

Liz Kelly celebrates independence and a love of process in her work with clay, from cheeky image-transfer mugs to plates in delicate pastels.
By Addie Ladner / Photography by Taylor McDonald

In a pine-filled neighborhood in West Raleigh, a young Liz Kelly would spend hours at a clay pit near her home. There, she’d meticulously form hundreds of cubes from the red clay, drawn as much to the process as she was to the result. “From an early age, I enjoyed repetition, the process and that engagement with raw materials,” says Kelly.

She also enjoyed the space for freedom of expression and personal empowerment that the arts offered. “The operative word is independence,” she says. “Through expressive acts in following my artistic leaning, I was able to establish my identity and individualism.”

Kelly had strict, religious parents who homeschooled, but she took advantage of the more flexible way of learning. Kelly travelled with her mom, a flight attendant, getting inspired by museums and local art scenes all over the world. She condensed three years of high school into one calendar year so she could focus more on travel and creative endeavors. As a teen and young adult, she continued her self-guided education in places like Maine, western North Carolina and Hawaii. There, she spent five years exploring Hilo, Kailua-Kona, Honaunau and Mountain View, and gave birth to her daughter, Liona Stebbins, now 14. Kelly wanted space to become the young adult she felt growing inside. “I was looking for defining experiences and wasn’t ready to settle into a profession or studies,” she says. “I wanted a larger worldview for myself in those crucial formative years, so naturally, I went to a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific.”

Eventually, Kelly missed her home state and the pottery scene here. She returned to Raleigh and headed straight to the Pullen Arts Center to hone her craft, while also working on a degree in Design Studies from N.C. State University. “I wasn’t good at all, but I was stubborn and it was such an amazing thing to have in my life,” she says. Kelly was in awe of the potters and artists she’d meet, working full-time as makers. “I’d go to Artspace downtown and connect those dots, seeing artists making a life for themselves. It was such a revelation,” she says.

As a student, the more she learned, the more she identified with her craft values. “It brought me to the ‘why’ of my making,” she says. A down-to-earth and practical woman at heart, she’s now proud to be a full-time, self-employed artist like the ones she used to admire (career highlight: owning her own home). And she still spends hours carefully working with clay, but now she’s doing it in a rustic Boylan Heights studio, producing thousands of ceramic cups, vases, plates and bowls every year.

City of Oaks residents have come to love her pieces for their warm tones and edgy, vintage-inspired designs. Her process is clearly evident in her pieces. Personal empowerment and approachability, two themes of her work and life, come through even in something as simple, as sacred, as the morning cup of coffee.

“If there isn’t a clean Liz Kelly mug in the morning, I find it and wash it,” says Meredith Honig, a regular customer of Kelly’s. Coffee is a huge part of my morning, and these mugs have changed my life. They spoil me.” It sounds like quite a testimonial—but if you own a Liz Kelly mug, you know it’s not a stretch. Her mugs have heft, but softness, too; they’re neither uniformly smooth nor entirely textured. Your hands feel the warmth from the liquid inside (some claim the coffee stays hot for longer). They’re glazed in muted tones of coral or cream, you can see the subtle ripples and drops. At the bottom, you’ll often find the ghost of the potter’s finger or thumb, a mark from the glaze dripping around her hands. The mug invites you in. “I love that you can see her process in the finished product, you’re there,” Honig says.

Around 100 pieces come out of Kelly’s kiln each week, including plates, bowls, vases, platters and, of course, mugs. She keeps most things priced between $15 and $55; not out of reach by some standards, but high enough, she hopes, to discourage needless consumption. “I’m a value-driven maker. Things need to be functional and beautiful,” she says.

Her most popular mugs feature antique-y images front and center, which she creates through a process called ceramic decal image transferring. Kelly learned the skill from Justin Rothshank in western North Carolina, at the renowned Penland School of Craft. It’s a way to add a poppy, modern element to a classic, timeless pottery. Through a partnership with Person Street retailer Edge of Urge and local restaurants like Stanbury, this skill of Kelly’s in in high demand. She makes more than 1,000 of these mugs a year. “It blows my mind, but they never sit around very long,” says Kelly. And while the styling is old-fashioned, any icon might find themselves front and center: Willy Nelson, Dolly Parton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or the Beastie Boys, to name a few. Family portraits, a beloved pet or inspiring quotes are not off-limits either. “They’re an identity booster,” says Kelly. “You want your mug to feel like you. It’s an expressive piece.” Customers respond to these personal touches: blue-bonnets that recall a home state of Texas, Frida Kahlo’s fierce energy. Kelly’s pieces elevate everyday, personal moments.

“Once I witnessed how thrilled people were to get wares with their favorite faces on them, I committed more to it. It’s a fun line to have in my body of work,” she says. Decals aside, it’s the attention to the feel and form in all her pieces that customers come back for. Her daughter often helps out in the studio and notes how many people describe Kelly’s wares as “sturdy but soft.” “My mom puts a lot of focus on how her pieces feel and their shape,” says Stebbins. “Her customers become so drawn to that uniqueness. It’s very special to her.” Her mother agrees: “Engagement with my artwork, and helping to build those everyday memories, it is so human.”