Left in Andover: Taking the wheel, and a ticket home

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Although Dana-san, the boss, had given me  permission to work on the potters wheel, no one actually “taught” me. One learned by doing, in this land where questions as such were just not asked.

I was assigned my own wooden kick wheel, the concrete base of which was planted directly into the dirt floor of a long shed looking out onto the courtyard. To my right, Dana-san “Junior”, a morose young man, worked in silence for hours on end. He seemed to me a human robot, churning out hundreds of identical flower pots a day, never once soiling his precisely pressed buttoned-down shirts.

Susan, far right, and male co-workers admire their pots at a kiln unloading. Ogami Pottery in Tachikui, Japan, in 1973.

On my left toiled the good natured Ichino-san, a relentless worker as well, but one endowed with a warm sense of humor. The two of us kept up a friendly banter though he never looked me directly in the face, a sign of respect paid to all females by older men.

Sandwiched between these two experts, my eyes glued to their hands, I tried to catch their magic. It was not long before I was cranking out hundreds of tiny sake cups, per Dana-san’s challenge. After I got the hang of apportioning out the same size knob of clay for each, they automatically came out identical in size: What I feared would be the most difficult aspect to achieve, occurred naturally.

My tiny, freshly thrown sake cups glistened like precious jewels in the sun as I set them out to dry on the boards that covered every inch of the courtyard in good weather.

Just a few of the 1,000 identical sake cups Susan made on the wheel in Japan in 1973.

After a week of us working side by side, the boss’s son acknowledged me with a grunt or two. But my real reward came from Ichino-san. Lined face erupting in a huge grin, he would sometimes motion me to cease work and come watch as he attached intricate white coiled and combed clay appliqués onto the outsides of his flower pots. They were the exact same traditional designs I had ogled in the Tamba-yaki Museum in Sasayama, brought forth into being before mine own eyes!

Summer weekends, Japanese tourists streamed through our workshop. A gaijin girl in mompe and apron, I was a show stopper. Most visitors paused to stare over my shoulder and then exclaim, “Oki-wa, so desu-ne” or “Wow, she’s awfully big, isn’t she?” It never seemed to cross their minds that I might understand Japanese. I could only hope they were awe-struck enough to double their gift shop purchases on the way out.

One afternoon a group of very tall Brits came by and even I was struck by their unearthly paleness. Surrounded by dark eyes, skin and hair, I had lost all perspective as to my own physical appearance. I turned 21 that summer of 1973. Every single Japanese adult who engaged me in my stumbling but adequate Japanese expressed puzzlement as to why I was not home trying to get married. Although this offended my feminist sensibility, I was every bit as lonely as they suspected.

The courtyard at Ogami Pottery as we packed up our finished pots in straw for shipment.

But then would come an interaction so profound as to make it all worthwhile. One morning I visited with an ancient farmer bent over in his field. He explained to me that some folks in his village made pots and some grew sweet potatoes: It all added up to the same thing. Having tried both, he personally preferred the latter. That summed it up for me as well, except that I chose the pots.

As a child of the ‘60s, this was my dream back-to-the-land experience, to create useable artifacts for daily life with my own hands, from dirt as it were, and to fire them with wood, using techniques ante-dating the Industrial Revolution. I loved using my primitive potter’s wheel that, having no flywheel on the bottom, required constant kicking, and mastering a coil and throw technique to conserve muscle power.

I had chosen to travel alone in order to melt into my environment without changing it. This was of course a crazy idea. By definition I stuck out like a sore thumb. Japan was, and still is, one of the most homogeneous places on Earth. And these Kobe mountain people had a reputation of their own to keep up, being renowned elsewhere in Japan for their ”friendly faces and hard hearts.”

Nevertheless, I was so in love with the pottery “terroir” of this remote village, so sustained by its alchemy of local earth, water and molten ash that little else mattered.

Closeup of a traditional Tamba-yaki flowerpot by Ichino-san, now in Susan’s collection in Andover.

One day, after a whole year had passed, a representative for a Norwegian shipping company happened to visit my workshop. After watching me work, he handed me his card saying to contact him if I wanted to earn my way home washing dishes on one of his company’s cargo ships.

This offer solidified my decision not to circumnavigate the globe. Instead of continuing on through mainland Asia, I boarded a car-carrying ship in Yokohama harbor bound for L.A., my own custom-made chestnut wood wheel on my back. I was heading home to Vermont, to test my ability to put into action all I had learned.

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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. tony smith says:

    Susie Leader, Sharing your many vivid adventures is a gift. Thank you.

    Tony Smith

  2. Henry Homeyer says:

    HI Susan, I am so enjoying your stories of the distant past. Like you, I set off in the 1970s to see the world – or a part of it. I ended up gone 10 years, having lived in Africa for nine of them. It’s too bad that young people today rarely set off on adventures such as yours and mine. But the whole world has changed in the past 40 years or so. We were the lucky ones!