Left in Andover: Transformation in Japan

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In 1979 I resettled permanently on our family land in Andover with my life partner-to-be, fiddle player John Specker, my long held dream of establishing a family run pottery upmost in mind.

John had recently come to southern Vermont from Ithaca, N.Y., where his bowing, singing and rhythmic innovations helped create the “Ithaca Sound,” a unique fiddle style, in the early 1970s.

At times, it seemed the two of us were in a contest to see whose vocation was the least practical. Philosophically opposed to “polluting” pottery making by selling it, I performed seasonal orchard work to support my passion.

John Specker plays with fiddle as Susan passes nearby at their Andover home in 1979.

John worked pressing apples at a cider mill in the fall and as a landscaper during the summer while also establishing his reputation in the area as a fiddler.

In the end, however, pottery turned out to be more practical than music as a means of support. John became my secret weapon in creating a successful family pottery business, still in operation to this day.

By 1984 when our first baby was born, we were deeply engaged together in our home pottery business, switching off child care and studio work around-the-clock, commuting from one side of our meadow to the other, a dream manifested.

As a college student, I had yearned, in the words of Yanagi Sōetsu, father of the modern Japanese folk craft movement, “to discover the beautiful truthfulness of domestic handmade crafts so ordinary as to be unobserved by people at large.”

In spring 1973 — to test this truth as well as British potter Bernard Leach’s thesis that “before the age of science and modern industry, crafts used to spring out of the hearts and hands of man” — I had traveled to tiny Tachikui, home to an 800-year-old continuous pottery making tradition in the remote Tamba mountains, west of Kyoto, Japan.

Men throwing pots with added coils, Ogami Pottery, Tachikui, Japan, 1973.

That May, and for a week after my arrival by bus in Tachikui, I camped out at a Shinto shrine. I did not realize until much later how sacrilegious this was, but at least it was safe and no one bothered me there. I spent each day making the rounds of the same village workshops offering to help with chores, hoping to secure an apprenticeship.

A 90-year-old grandfather, Oji-san, captivated me. Although he trembled with Parkinson’s, his fingers steadied instantly upon contact with clay. Before my eyes, he would transform from quivering old man to master potter, every fluid movement economical and full of grace. Next to Oji-san sat his 15-year-old great-grandson learning to throw teacups. In a corner, his middle aged grandson cranked out a semi-automated version of Tachikui’s iconic flowerpots.

Play acting being part of such a family, I dropped in on them every day, assisting the women at glazing and cleaning the workshop. Sadly they could not afford to offer me room and board, which I would have needed to become their apprentice.

Susan in Japan.

Another stop on my daily rounds was the O Pottery. This was a larger, more viable operation with two wood-fired climbing kilns. I am not sure why Dana-san, the master, accepted my offer to enter into his service, as he was not very friendly and I carried no letter of introduction. Perhaps he calculated I would make a good tourist attraction.

After many nights of camping at the shrine, I didn’t care. I jumped at his invitation to move into the empty room next to K, the other apprentice, above the clay mixing shed.

In exchange for laboring dawn to dusk six days a week, K and I received a monthly allotment of homegrown rice and shared quarters. The filthy pink towel that K hung above our tiny kitchen sink and his habit of stashing his toothbrush in the chopsticks were enough to make me want to kill him. Nevertheless, the two of us managed to coexist and even have fun together.

Susan with freshly thrown pots, Andover, mid-1970s.

Several nights a week, after the boss and his family went home, K and I slipped away to party with the half dozen other apprentices serving in our district. Most were country boys, content to follow their ringleader Y who, with his long ponytail and tall physique, oozed a hipness unknown in those parts.

Y welcomed us all to his private tatami-matted pad with a round of beers and the occasional joint. Y was crazy for Dylan, “John Wesley Harding” in particular, playing it over and over again each evening. “John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor…” became the only English words I could count on hearing for days on end.

I should have acceded to the boys’ assumption that “Bobu-San” was a personal friend of mine – we were both Americans afterall. That would have been my big chance to gain status, fast.

But I just couldn’t do it. The fact is, I had never paid any attention whatsoever to Dylan before this.

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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. Kathy V says:

    I’ve so enjoyed learning more about the delightful woman with a warm smile and friendly manner. You’ve given us a glimpse into what shaped your Talent. and a deeper appreciation of how you grew into the artist whose pottery we enjoy.

    Over the last decade my husband and I have purchased several pieces of pottery. Each piece is sturdy and functional, not fussy, yet appealing. It is my belief you have discovered that beautiful truthfulness.