Lalese Stamps of Lolly Lolly Ceramics Discusses Her Wildly Ambitious 100-Day Project, Brand Activism, and the Need for Vulnerability
April 21, 2021
Managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Lalese Stamps of Lolly Lolly Ceramics in February 2021 via Zoom. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. All images © Lolly Lolly Ceramics, shared with permission
Grace: You grew up in Milwaukee, and now you’re in Columbus. What’s it like working in a smaller creative community?
Lalese: It’s easier for me to speak to my connection with Columbus and the community here because I’ve been here the past ten years. It’s such a supportive community. Even though Columbus is small—it’s a smaller city than Chicago or New York or L.A., for example—it’s still a pretty big city, and it’s a hub for fashion. There’s a lot of big brands here like Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch, so it attracts a lot of creatives.
Because it’s a smaller creative community, it allows for more connections and opportunities to really work with other creatives. I’ve really loved that. I can imagine it would be hard in a city like New York to connect with other people just because it’s so huge and there are so many different avenues. I do really appreciate that things are very ground level. If you want to connect to someone, it’s not that hard. Everyone’s really friendly and really open to making connections. I think that’s a big part of my growth. I’ve been able to meet so many different people, and I think that that support has really helped to build upon this Lolly brand.
Grace: You grew so quickly!
Lalese: Yeah. You all at Colossal were some of the first people last year that reached out to highlight the work I was doing, so you were able to see things progress over the year. To me, it felt fast. I’ve been working on Lolly Lolly since 2017 but always in smaller ways. I was still a student when I first started, but it was never really a big brand. It was selling things at the local flea markets, and it grew over time. I think it’s a testament to hard work and continuing to do things that feel natural and authentic to you.
I was working full time as a graphic designer—that’s what I went to school for, graphic design—and I continued in my career as a graphic designer after I graduated. I also made ceramics simultaneously while I was doing that. It just naturally expanded. The 100 day project really helped me. Had I not done that I think my recognition might have come later on. But that’s just the natural flow of things. Sometimes things are under your control. I tell people that I knew that I would get to a big point. I’m the kind of person who can talk to anyone. I love sharing my work, so I always thought that things would grow large. But I agree. I think it happened very fast.
Grace: You have people working with you right now. How has the actual business changed in the last year?
Lalese: I mean, I’ve recognized it more as a business! For a while, it felt more like a fun side hustle. I don’t like to use the word “hobby” because it felt more than that. Now it’s front and center, and the business side of things is going really well.
When you’re creative and you start getting into a business with your creativity, you’re up against this thought of, “Okay, do I want to be more creative? Or do I want to put more focus on the business? Do I want to hire other people to help with the business side?” And I’ve ironically realized that I like the business side a lot, thinking through the different ways that we can grow and bring on more people. My business is debt-free right now, which it isn’t bad to have debt, but I’m in this positive spot where it’s like, “okay, I didn’t mean to do this, but how can we take this to the next level? What are the next steps?”
Grace: How are you splitting your time, then? How much are you at the wheel?
Lalese: That’s a great question. I still feel really overwhelmed but not as much as I was last year when everything happened all at once. Right now, I do feel like I’m splitting my time pretty equally. Actually, I have an Instagram Live I’m doing later today with the owner of Honeypot Co., which is a wellness brand with a big focus on sanitary products. I’m a little nervous because I feel like I have not done a great job of balancing work and life. I try my best. I do what I can. But I’m so excited that I find myself always working on something.
I try to work on creative stuff during the day. I have meetings sprinkled in throughout the day with contractors who are working with me, with doing interviews like this. Sometimes I can get on the wheel for a few hours. I tend to do a lot more business stuff right in the morning when I wake up or in the evening before bed because a lot of my business stuff is paperwork. It’s not really hard. It just requires a lot of time and focus.
I feel like it’s a pretty 50/50 split. But to be honest, I would like to move away from the creative side a little bit. We’re actually working to implement more processes where I don’t have to be as involved in making every single piece. Right now, I’m the only one who throws on the wheel, which is very time-consuming. It’s really physically draining. I would love to take on more brand partnership opportunities or doing more YouTube videos. I also would like to design new stuff. It’s just part of the process. Right now, I can’t do that as much as I want, but we have goals for that this year.
Grace: What does that process look like?
Lalese: I work backwards. For example, right now, there’s a lot of new pieces of equipment that we’ve ordered that haven’t quite come yet. In the meantime, I worked with my two studio assistants to figure out what we can do. Is it starting to make prototypes for molds? That’s a process that we want to start to get into and decide what we want to make molds from. Our speckled mug is really unique, but I don’t think I want that to be made from a mold.
One of my big things right now that we’re working on is packaging and doing a huge exploration of that. There are many factors involved with packaging a ceramic piece and that curtails with the new process that we’re implementing. If we’re changing the way we make mugs, does that mean we have to keep that in mind for packaging?
There’s no set way that we’re doing things, but I have had a lot of mentors who have been really great guides and helping with things like this. One in particular, East Fork in Asheville is a pottery brand that I’ve looked to as a model. They’ve grown to a team of 80 people, and their revenues are in the millions per quarter. I’m fortunate to have a relationship with one of the owners, Alex Mateesah. He has been really great as far as giving me advice.
It’s hard because I am the sole founder/owner, but I’m so fortunate to have a network of people that I trust. Even though they’re not in the clay industry, they can offer really great insight.
Grace: How did you build that network of people?
Lalese: This is a hard one for me because I’m naturally really good at making connections with people. I feel really confident with starting conversations in different settings. Right now, there’s not a lot of social events to go to, but there’s still ways to connect with people. I find myself reaching out to other people. It’s hard because sometimes people don’t read or respond.
Even applying for a job, you don’t just apply to one job expecting to hear back from them. You put yourself out there, be a little vulnerable, and see what catches. I think that’s been my biggest success as a person, as an individual, and also as a business. Being a little bit vulnerable and realizing that we’re all in the same situation. We’re all just trying to figure things out. I’ve had one bad interaction with someone, but I didn’t take it personally.
I think that’s been my biggest success as a person, as an individual, and also as a business. Being a little bit vulnerable and realizing that we’re all in the same situation. We’re all just trying to figure things out.—Lalese Stamps
Grace: It’s so interesting that you talk about vulnerability in that way because I see it as such a central part of your work, particularly with the 100 day project. Obviously, it’s amazing work, but I’m sure not every piece felt great?
Lalese: Yeah, I really see that as a central part. Another thing about vulnerability, something that I see a lot with people is that they put a lot of weight into certain situations. I have a really good friend who I won’t name, but I love this person. I love them so much. But I see him every day all the time building up this anxiety around one interaction or one situation, like applying for a job, for example. For me, I’m the kind of person like, you just got to do what you got to. You’ve got to just do it and know that there’s a chance that you’ll experience some form of rejection. I’m saying this as if it’s so easy. I get that it’s hard to put yourself out there. But I just imagine the more you do it, the more likely something will happen.
I didn’t like every mug. That’s so funny that you said that because as an object, I remember at the time telling my partner, “Oh, this one is not good, but you know, it’s one out of 100, so I’m still gonna post it and see what happens.” It turned out being a lot of other people’s favorite. That is such a great example of putting yourself out there and taking a risk. I guess I love taking risks.
To me, even taking a risk is trying something and then being able to quit if you feel like it’s not working. I’ve tried fiber arts before, and I just quit because I didn’t feel like it worked for me. I’ve been an architecture student. I think it has to be calculated, but there’s something about taking a risk that feels really exhilarating. It’s knowing that you were successful, even if it’s a small way. Say you’ve done it. Saying that I’ve done it is so fulfilling. I think more people should definitely take risks.
Grace: The accomplishment of trying is important. Can you walk us through the 100 day project? Is there anything that stands out now that’s still impacting the way that you work on a daily basis?
Lalese: At the time I started the project, I was doing ceramics as a fun thing on the side. I was selling them, but I felt like I wasn’t really trying new things. I had gotten into this groove where I was using the same glazes and the same clay. Honestly, too, one thing that happened locally is that I started to see similar works pop up from other artists. Instead of being upset by that and reacting in a way that I own the style, I completely decided to switch my trajectory and try something new. The 100 day project felt like such a great way to push myself, and it almost was a way for me to challenge myself and to see if I could actually stand out from other ceramicists.
As a graphic designer, too, I rely really heavily on the internet for inspiration. This project did help me to really, truly see things in my surroundings and pull from normal objects that I would see on my day-to-day. I joke with people that during that time, I traveled a lot, and I honestly still can’t believe it. When I think about it now, I went to New York, to Denver. I went to D.C. during that time. Three different places. I had to plan around that. But I remember being in those cities, being on walks, taking pictures of things, and stopping the whole group I was with to be like, “Oh wait, this is inspiration for a mug.” That’s honestly one of my proudest moments from the project is to truly be able to say that. I was inspired by things in my daily life.
When I first started the project, I sketched out a lot of ideas, but a lot of them didn’t really pan out. As I worked on it, a lot of it was repetitive, the shapes that I would use. It was really hard. I definitely pushed myself. That was a moment in my life when I was like, “this probably was not the best planned out idea,” but knowing that there was an end to it helped me to get through it. Posting online every day held me accountable. That was a really fun part of it and something that I didn’t expect to be so successful. Having people on the journey while I was doing it was really cool.
Grace: And you were still working full-time as a graphic designer during that time, right?
Lalese: Yeah, and I was in the studio in my basement, so I felt really lonely at some times, too. I honestly did not expect for that project to get me this much recognition, but I think when I look back on it, it all feels so worth it, you know? I was able to get a lot of eyes and a larger audience based off of that project. I feel like I’m positioned in this way where I can do anything with Lolly, keep pushing forward and maybe do another project down the line. Who knows?
Grace: I wanted to ask if you have plans to try it again or even do a similar, long period of work.
Lalese: I thought about it. Because I have done it already, I feel more excited about trying it a second time. I know what to expect, and I know what the pain points were. I do fear that because we have this full-fledged business going, it would be hard to. Maybe we’ll see a lot of different things in the works. I tell people that if the opportunity arises and it feels natural and not forced, I would do it again.
Grace: Is that how you decide what projects to say yes to, whether it’s a personal project, like the 100 day one, or even just opportunities that you get from other people? Is it a feeling? Is it a question of “is this good for my business?”?
Lalese: Right now we’re automatically saying no a lot to people and to custom orders. Wholesalers we base on whether or not the opportunity feels right and whether or not it’s a good opportunity to get a new audience. For example, MoMA has reached out to us and the Brooklyn Museum. Those are really great opportunities to grow our audience, and I think that that’s the appropriate setting for us. The project was more of an art form to start, and now it’s become more of a commerce thing. So if we can tie it back to those roots of it being art, not an object that people buy, I think that would be great.
It is a case-by-case basis, and there have been people who have reached out who have been following us for a long time, who felt like they just haven’t been able to get their hands on something. I totally get how frustrating that is, especially if they’ve been falling for so long. I always work with people like that, too, because it’s important to me to make sure those people feel seen. The support they’ve given has been great. I want to make sure they know that we care about them.
Grace: Your community is really interesting. I was listening to a podcast that you were on a while back, and you mentioned that you wanted to do workshops or have a design studio that people could come to visit. Is that still something that you’re thinking about and wanting to do in the future?
Lalese: Yeah, that is definitely a future goal. That’s part of the process of growing the business: deciding when something like that would actually be feasible. Right now, our focus so much is on getting stuff online and figuring out a good process for ways to produce the work.
Beyond just workshops, though, I really want to make sure that Lolly Lolly is connected to the community, whatever community we’re in. It’s so important to me. Especially with the arts being so underfunded, across the whole nation, if we could position ourselves to offer different opportunities especially in underserved communities, like Black communities, that would be so awesome to have this space that people could go to. And it’d be owned by a Black person.
I started making ceramics when I was 27, and I never really thought that that was an avenue to make a living, essentially. Even just to be an example for other people, to show that you can be a creative and you can flex it to make it work for you and in your life, that alone is really exciting. I’m going to continue to find ways to make sure that gets incorporated in our business because I really value that a lot.
Grace: Your activism and politics are evident even within Lolly Lolly, particularly on social media.
Lalese: I remember back when the protests were happening for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. During that time, I was using my platform a lot to speak out about those things. That’s when things were blowing up, and I wasn’t really even making ceramics. The fact that my brand exploded during that time was still so wild to me. I get it now. People were in this position where they wanted to support Black businesses, and that was their way of doing that. But I remember, every morning, I would wake up and post something just to make sure people saw it.
I love talking about politics online. I’ve never had anyone say anything negative yet. Erica Hart, who is a huge actor, a huge activist online, the things that people respond to her with, I’m shocked. No one’s come for me yet. I’m ready whenever. You reach a certain point in your personal life and in living in America, where you’re fed up, especially as a Black person. We live in a country where history gets forgotten. I want to be as joyful and positive that I can be every day, but I’m also not going to let people forget that things are continuously happening and that you have to use our voices. Having a platform where I can do that is so awesome.
You reach a certain point in your personal life and in living in America, where you’re fed up, especially as a Black person. We live in a country where history gets forgotten.—Lalese Stamps
Grace: There’s also the demand for being very clear about what your politics are as a person and as a brand. They’re so interwoven, and everyone really wants to know who is behind this product, who is behind this brand, all of that.
Lalese: That’s why I think the future is bright for small businesses like myself, for makers like myself, because there is such an opportunity to really stand out and to separate ourselves from bigger brands. People are becoming more aware of where things are sourced and who they support. It’s really lovely. It’s an era that is so important. I love the transparency. I love knowing that there’s brands that put all their money into the Trump candidacy, for example, and knowing that publicly, it’s like, “Alright, well, maybe I won’t support you because it doesn’t really align with my values.”
Actually, this is a good segue into the partnerships that I do. For example, with Madewell, some people have questioned me for those decisions of working with big brands like that. Last year, when things were kind of crazy, I saw these opportunities, and I thought they were really great. I still think they’re really great opportunities. Working with Madewell has been a really great program. It’s not just selling on their site. They do workshops and a lot of different things like learnings to help their small makers to grow. One really valuable workshop I did was about email marketing, and it’s been really incredible. I’ve been able to implement those tactics that I learned.
But I will say, going forward, I have to be a little bit more particular about who I partner with because I never really considered Madewell, for example, as a fast fashion brand, not compared to H&M or Forever 21. But it is important to consider those kind of factors when deciding who to work with. Madewell and West Elm have both dedicated themselves to the 15% pledge, which is reserving 15% of their shelf space for products from Black-owned businesses. Things like that have helped me to know that I’ve made good decisions, but I would really love to work more with smaller brands, to help align with them, and to help them grow. It’s just all a learning process.
Grace: Doesn’t that come back to the question of perfection? We have so much tension in the decisions that we have to make as consumers every day, which I’m sure is amplified as a creative and business owner.
Lalese: Yeah. I do realize that as I’m entering this room that it is starting to be a little scary for me. I just had a conversation with my friend the other day about balancing my private life and my social media life or business life. I started a YouTube channel, for example. I think that’ll be a really great opportunity to give people more insight into what we’re doing every day and our processes. That’s a big way I learned a lot of ceramic techniques, so how cool would it be to offer my insights on that platform? But then I have to remind myself that that makes my life incredibly open, open for critique, and open for anyone to comment on it. As I’ve continued to grow, I’ve thought through this balance of privacy because I consider myself to be pretty private. I’m very open about talking about things online, but most people don’t know who I’m dating, what my house looks like, or things like that. It’s an interesting navigation. I’ve had people critique me already, and I feel like I’ve been able to handle it. But everyone makes mistakes.
Grace: What has your experience been becoming, for lack of a better term, more of a cultural figure? I’ve seen a variety of interviews about your nighttime routine, advice on dating, things like that.
Lalese: You’re noticing the same things that I’m noticing at this time. I actually just recently partnered with Air. They’re an agency that represents talent, and I decided to partner with them because I had a lot of brands reach out for different partnership opportunities and I was just having a hard time sifting through what felt right for me, negotiating rates, that kind of stuff.
I’m very open to doing more lifestyle things. People want to know about how I take care of my hair, and like, “sure! Let’s talk about it.” But I want to be able to control it as much as I can. I only want to do things that make sense. Does that answer your question?
Grace: Yeah, I think so. It’s a management thing—being thoughtful about every aspect and thinking through the ripple effects of partnering with someone, whether it’s based on your values and ethics or privacy.
Lalese: The way I see it, too, is that I’m still really young, and I feel like there’s a lot of opportunities beyond just being creative, so why not explore that and see if it’s a good fit? And it brings attention to the brand. When it comes down to it, I own a business. I’m hiring a team of people, and it’s not just about me anymore and my livelihood. It’s other peoples’ livelihoods, as well, so I’m open to any opportunity that feels right. I’m also open to saying no if it doesn’t feel right.
Grace: I’m sure you develop your criteria and a better understanding as you go, too.
Lalese: Totally. I just turned 31, and I can see myself in two years getting tired of everything and being like, “okay! I don’t want to be out in the public eye anymore.”
Grace: You did an interview last year where you talked about how you spent a lot of July grieving. I’m wondering if you’re willing to expand on that, particularly in relation to being excited about the opportunities you have while mourning the loss of something you had before.
Lalese: I could see my life changing as it was changing. My priorities had shifted, and I was taking on all of these new things. I was feeling selfish. I felt like I had to really invest myself in this moment because there were a lot of things happening that I had to really take advantage of. So the grieving part was knowing that I didn’t have the control that I once had. I feel like other people positioned me in the position I’m in right now, which is hard to explain. I could say no to it all and shut down and refocus my life, but I do really care about what I’m doing.
There’s something really liberating about just being and going with the flow and seeing where things take you. That’s where I am now.