You could say that Stoney Lamar was preparing for his life’s work as a maker even from his earliest years — that as a child he was fascinated by line and motion, enamored by the curve of form and the definition of space, that he grew into adolescence devoted to the study of his future craft, that by his manhood he was deeply versed in the Theory and Higher Principles of Art, that ever after he grew steadily into the mature and remarkable artist whose work today is known and exhibited and collected across the nation.
You could say all that.
But not much of it would be true. Except for that last part.
What is true is that no matter how striking, unique and evolutionary Stoney Lamar’s career has been, he arrived at its beginning some decades ago by an entirely different path. He learned his geometrical theory in a pool hall; he aggravated his minister-father; he grappled with a war; he set out in a career direction that he neither liked nor decided he was much good at; he almost by accident discovered what he was good at, at long last feeling the call in his hands and soul. And then — a second miracle — he found the one human being on the planet best suited to recognize it in him, and to put up with innumerable hardships along the way as his life’s partner.
Only then are we able to get back to the part about the remarkable artist whose work is known and exhibited, etc., etc.
There is something to be said for serendipity, or if you prefer, for fate disguised as such.
William Stoney Lamar was born Nov. 26, 1951, in Alexandria, Louisiana, to an Episcopal priest and a onetime nurse. The family left for Knoxville in a few years in the wake of church controversy — his father had allowed a black attendee, which did not go over well in Louisiana in the 1950s. The family lived in Knoxville until Stoney was a high school junior, but by then he had been shipped off to a boy’s school in Rome, Georgia, for discipline. Whether it was preacher’s-kid syndrome or just an innate stubbornness, the young Stoney did not exactly strive to meet adult expectations (“I did get to be a pretty good pool shot, though.”) Even with his father’s standing, the Episcopal schools not would put up with him either, so off to Georgia he went. “I think it probably saved my life,” he says. “I guess I had never really been given any responsibility.”
By his senior year in high school, Stoney’s family moved to Tryon, N.C., in Polk County, not far east of the Pisgah National Forest, where his father took a new church. Stoney returned to local schools and did well enough to be admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (“Everyone was stunned.”). Once there, however, he became intimately acquainted with the pastime of playing cards, and perhaps not as intimately acquainted with other things that he should have — leading, soon enough, to his no longer being a student at the University of North Carolina. His timing was lousy and his draft number was low. Called to service in Vietnam, Stoney instead spent two years to the day working as a conscientious objector, from Sept. 13, 1971 to Sept. 13, 1973. During this time he worked two stints in mental hospitals and developed an appreciation of the thin line between “normalcy” and mental illness. “People are capable of building their own cosmologies, their own little world,” he says. “And they’re not all in hospitals.”
A little older, perhaps slightly wiser, he tried the University of North Carolina at Asheville and finally Appalachian State University, from which he indeed graduated in 1979 with a B.S. in industrial arts. At Appalachian State he met the daughter of an eastern North Carolina tobacco farmer, Susan Casey, and once she decided to have him, they married with the romantic notion that they would make furniture together. “We were going to make furniture together, but we ended up making babies,” Stoney says. “I thought I was going to be a furniture maker, too — but I didn’t like making furniture.”
He did not think of himself as a maker of art yet, not even the hint of one. But it was about then that for some reason Stoney borrowed a friend’s lathe and felt the rightness of it. Still, he did not suddenly smack himself on the head and declare himself to be an Artist: “I didn’t decide to be a sculptor,” as Stoney puts it. “I decided to make work on a lathe.” Fortunately, he was not an especially good bowl turner (according to him), or else the world today would have many additional so-so bowls, and far fewer Stoney Lamar sculptures. At last he began to really think about the lathe, to think about what it meant to geometry and line, and the way that we see the world. Now the drive grew in him, now he knew what he wanted to explore, and remarkably enough, Susan agreed to pack up their two young daughters and head to New Hampshire so he could serve as a wood turner’s apprentice. By the mid-‘80s Stoney and Susan were back in North Carolina, where he was creating work, being accepted to his first shows, and making early sales.
You cannot talk to Stoney about his early career for even a few minutes without him bringing Susan into the conversation. It was she who acknowledged the potential in him. It was she who not only allowed him to pursue his work, but encouraged it — demanded it. “You need to do this,” she told him. And so for years they lived below the poverty level, with Susan working at a bakery, drumming up catering jobs or doing whatever else helped keep the family afloat. Ask Stoney for the secret of whatever success he has enjoyed as a creator and he replies: “What’s really important is to be married to someone who doesn’t have to help you cash a regular paycheck.”
This is a biographical sketch , not a critical discussion of the work — there are others writing about that with considerable more ability and knowledge. Suffice it to say that he has been exhibited constantly ever since, that his work is in public and private collections across the U.S. and beyond, that he has won numerous awards, that he has lectured, taught, presided over workshops, served as artist in residence. He has been a board member of the American Craft Council, president and board member of the Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild, a founding member of the Association of American Woodturners, and president of the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design. Among many other things.
He produces his work in a studio in Saluda, North Carolina, about 35 miles southeast of Asheville. Saluda is a city of 700 where his father took his final church, and where he and Susan have lived ever since. Here they raised two daughters in the house they built up the hill from the studio, and where they now preside over a growing flock of grandchildren with love and befuddlement. As his career evolved and his range expanded, so grew the shop’s array of equipment, the drill presses, saws, winches, metal-benders, monstrous lathes, arc-welders, compressors, benches crowded with hand tools, walls of drawers. All manner of wood and metal pieces lean against the walls and fill the corners — work in progress, work abandoned, work under reconsideration, work that might or might not turn out to be interesting, work that has not yet not told him (as he puts it) what it is supposed to be. Lanky, gray headed, usually with goggles or a welding mask perched atop his head, Stoney at work gives the impression of a man puttering, and puttering some more, absent-mindedly, but who is in fact deeply absorbed in the next decision to be made, before the next hard, physical, irrevocable putting of machine or tool against material.
This brings us to the current stage of Stoney Lamar’s career, and its rather rude introduction. In 2009, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s — the inexorable, progressive loss of control of motion. Parkinson’s is the cruel and perfect nemesis for a sculptor, in the way that a composer might go deaf, or a painter blind. For an artist whose life’s pursuit has been the captured expression of kinetic energy, the study of controlled line and frozen motion, what challenge could be more profound? Stoney himself wonders whether his creative self, his body and his subconscious, were aware that Something Was Up long before any doctor told him, given that new themes of stability and instability, control and lack of control, had already begun to emerge in his work, seemingly of their own will. In these years since the diagnosis he has worked like never before, pushed his art to new places with new concepts — and has by general consensus produced some of the best work of his career. “Movement,” he says with a wry grin, “has become increasingly theatrical.” You can tell that he is honored, but also a little worried, by this whole career-retrospective business, lest anyone confuse it for a coda or an ending. And rightly so. Serendipity should be allowed to run its course.
Saluda, North Carolina