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Larry Allen: Ceramicist who makes something out of nothing

Larry Allen, ceramacist, of Leeds, Ala., and Best in Show award winner. (Amarr Croskey Photo, For The Birmingham Times)
By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times

Larry Allen enjoys making something out of nothing.
The 65-year-old ceramicist of Leeds, Ala. remembers the first time he stuck his hands in clay.

“The medium felt right. … It actually spoke to me,” he said. “[Taking] a lifeless lump of clay that has no form but all the potential … and [turning] it into something elegant and fine, that’s what gets me going.”

Allen was among the 200-plus juried artists who gathered in downtown Birmingham’s Linn Park last weekend to display a broad range of art mediums and styles at the Magic City Art Connection (MCAC)—the city’s largest arts festival. He has participated in the event for the past four years and again won the Best in Show award last weekend, his third. He also won in 2018 and 2016.

“It never gets old…at the same time it’s always a surprise,” Allen said. “I never go expecting anything like that . . . whenever I win something, I appreciate somebody else thinking that much of my work.

‘We’re All Neighbors’

He presented whatever he could fit on his truck, including a mix of newer and older pieces all featuring what he calls his “Unity” concept, which was motivated by the 9/11 attacks on America.

“[We] finally realized that [we’re all] neighbors and we all need each other, and I said, ‘I’m going to etch it in stone as a reminder.’ I came up with a motif I call ‘Unity’ [and] started putting elongated figures on the sides of vessels. … It was the concept of people hand-in-hand around the vessel,” he said.

Allen, who has worked as an artist for the past 35 years, was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala. He was always drawing and sketching while he was a youngster, but he didn’t didn’t embrace pottery until 1975, when he attended Kentucky’s Berea College, a work-study school where students work because their tuition is already paid.

“I asked for a job in the art department because I majored in art. I thought working [there] would be a good job, but it wasn’t what I thought it was,” said Allen, who recently received the Berea College Distinguished Alumnus Award.

He was told of an opening in the pottery department: “That was the first time I saw anybody throwing on a wheel, and I was awestruck.”

Allen fell in love with pottery then and there. When he left Berea in 1978, he realized pottery would be his area of expertise, but he thought it would be something to do on the side, not a full-time job.

“I couldn’t do this on the side and work a job, too,” he said. “If I was going to do it, I needed to jump right into it and just do it. So, that’s what I did.”

‘Ready-Made Market’

Allen began with art shows because “[it’s] a ready-made market,” he said.

In addition to selling pieces, Allen is also a Jefferson State Community College teacher, a position he’s held since the 1990s; and he also teaches pottery classes in his Leeds-based studio.

Allen’s favorite works are Native American and African. The first pottery he saw was Native American—and it “just made my heart go ‘Zing,’” he said, explaining that the style includes sgraffito, a technique he practices that includes “a form of decoration made by scratching through a surface to reveal a lower layer of a contrasting color. . .”.

“I don’t like to imitate,” Allen said. “I like to interpret, … and I like to apply it to how I would do things.”

African art has symmetry, he explained, “which works with the way … my thinking is as far as design.”

Allen also incorporates elements of Asian culture or art when it comes to the shapes of some of his pieces: “I borrow shapes from various cultures,” he said. “[When] … I see something that captures my fancy, I try to … do it.”

“I try to give each piece the attention it deserves because I realize that I don’t like to cop out on a piece just because it’s small. I like to pay attention to everything I’m doing and put in the time for each piece.

“You can easily get lazy with pottery, and I been throwing since the 1970s. It’s one of those things where you can really get to a point that you can get lax. I have to choose things that keep my attention, so I choose shapes that make me work for it.”

Allen has learned to not take his work for granted.

“No matter how many times you make [a piece], you still have to work hard for it the next time,” he said. “You can’t just relax and say, ‘I got this.’”

Click one of the links below to read more stories from Magic City Art Connection.

Myrna Gates once volunteered at Magic City Art Connection; last week she won award of distinction

How Matthew Mayes learned that ‘Art Encompasses All’

The multicultural diversity of Joseph Frye