Left in Andover: Discovering pottery in Japan

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

When I started college at Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the summer of 1969, it was an era when all the rules were being broken.

I was desperate to create my own young adult identity. But it was disorienting to go from a very structured high school experience to one in which classes were optional.

A climbing kiln Tachikui 1973

It was luck that landed me from the very start in the Antioch Pot Shop. In the midst of chaos — the Hog Farm had recently filled a campus swimming pool with Jell-o and half the student body left to attend Woodstock — here was something I was desperate to learn.

Lights stayed on around the clock, as we kicked the old Randall wheels or experimented with throwing backwards on the Shimpo wheels. It was an artistic, sociable beehive and a world unto itself. Karen Shirley, the ceramics professor, offered guidance when requested, but we learned as much from each other.

Water powered clay processing Onda 1972.

After three years of classes and cooperative job experiences all around the country, I yearned for a more disciplined experience with clay, and for some type of traditional framework in which to fit myself.

Two-thirds of my entering class had dropped out by then. I resolved to study abroad for my last year, graduating in absentia. My independent study plan to circle the world studying pottery traditions was approved by the registrars office. It even issued me a modest sum of money to spend at my discretion.

At the potters wheel in Japan in 1973.

Since I had fallen in love with Japanese pottery, with its aesthetic of imperfection, and with the philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, who deemed the beauty of everyday hand-crafted objects equal to self-conscious “art,” I  headed to Japan first.

In the fall of 1972, I boarded a passenger ship in San Francisco and headed to Yokohama, ultimate destination unknown, speaking not a word of Japanese.

I was instantly adopted by a group of Japanese college students who were on the home stretch, having circumnavigated the globe themselves. They amused themselves teaching me how to count, and I mastered an impressive (to me) “Watakushi-wa yakimono-o benky-o ishtai des-u/I want to study pottery.” Armed with this charming introductory statement, I hoped to find a place to belong.

Pots drying in the sun in Onda, 1972.

Disembarking in Yokohama felt like stepping out into thin air. But traveling alone, I quickly learned a rudimentary Japanese. First I toured the country to see some of the most legendary ancient pottery making villages. Onda, Echizen, Shigaraki, each with its own unique style, employing locally mined clay and glazes, exemplifying the Japanese ideal of “objects born, not made.”

I was amazed at my luck hitchhiking until I finally realized that the drivers who picked me up felt an obligation to bring me wherever I was headed. After that, I took the train.

Eventually my pilgrimage led me to Mashiko, the pottery village made famous by merging the ideals and spirituality of Hamada-Shoji and British potter Bernard Leach. I hoped to land an apprenticeship in a folk pottery there.

Family run pottery with all members on deck in Onda, Japan, 1972.

In the words of Leach, “Every artist knows that he is engaged in an encounter with infinity, and that work done with heart and hand is ultimately worship of life itself. Sometimes a pot sings out from its wheel-head, from all its related parts … such a pot, or indeed any work of art, is not an expression of the maker alone, but of a degree of enlightenment wherein infinity, however briefly, obliterates the minor self.”

By Feb. 17, 1973, when I wrote the following journal entry, I had indeed found my dream place:

Today we started kusuri, glazing. Then we will fire the kilns. No new throwing for awhile. My first whole work cycle will soon be complete.

In the afternoon, the wife and I went to dig wild onions around the borders of the rice fields. It’s springlike and the ume/plum trees are blooming. I am very glad to be here, away from Antioch.

Later on I rode my bicycle to visit the kiln of Heerasaki-san during kamadashi/kiln unloading.

50 years later, I continue to benefit from the work habits I acquired in Japan.

He unloads while it is still super hot so as to get big crackles in the glaze. A real symphony of ping-ponging. I did not much care for Heerasaki’s shapes but I love his green ash glaze.

I think the feet on his tea ceremony bowls are too small and weak. Same with his kabin/jars plus the lips are too sharp and their overly round shape seems dowdy to me, with too much fat hanging down around the bottoms. Nevertheless, I could almost admire them if I hadn’t already seen better.

My own teacher, T-San, is SO good – even though he thinks he is a Rough Rider, really into his black leather jacket and motorcycle and makes his wife wait on him. In Japan a man is still a man – unfortunately.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Marjorie daitch says:

    A lovely rememberance. It was interesting to hear about Japanese pottery operations at that time.