Left in Andover: Pottery as a spiritual pursuit

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I divide my 51 years as a potter into several different stages. What started out as a spiritual experience for me at age 17 morphed into a much more mundane, “of this earth-ly world” career. This is Part I of a two-part story. Next week, Part II: On to the next stages.

Although I did my level best to choose something completely impractical to devote myself to, it did turn out to be the means by which my husband and I would support ourselves and raise a family.

Author’s original copy of ‘Be Here Now.’

I was initiated into the trance-inducing dimensions of throwing on the potters wheel, my drug of choice ever since, as a freshman at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The experience was both grounding and revelatory. Long hours engaged at a repetitive task do tend to result in an out-of-body state, a quasi-religious “high,” to use the parlance of 1969.

“Be Here Now,” the hippie bible written by Baba Ram Das (1931-2019), former Harvard professor and LSD researcher turned charismatic New Age guru, put it this way:
“The Potter Becomes His Pot, Embrace the 10,000 Beautiful Visions, Become 1 With the Universe, All the Energy Passes Thru You, You Are All the Energy.”

My first quarter off-campus, in the fall of 1969, forsaking the cocoon of the Antioch Pot Shop, I took off with friends for San Francisco, the epicenter of the counterculture movement to experience more of what this New Age was all about.

Hippie Hollow, 1971, on 40 acres in Kentucky.

To comply with my college’s work-study requirement, I contracted to hawk “Berkeley Tribe” newspapers on the street. This entailed picking up the papers at the main office, then positioning myself on a (not already claimed) busy street corner in Berkeley, all before dawn. Often as not, a cardboard box would serve as a place to cat-nap while awaiting the morning rush.

The rest of the time I did a lot of hanging out, hitchhiking up and down the coast checking out communes and sitting along the curb of Telegraph Avenue hammering copper wire into jewelry to sell. Clumps of orange dressed Hare Krishnas would walk by chanting. If you were hungry enough you could tag along to their ashram where the women would serve a sumptuous vegetarian feast. It was all free, if you could escape with your soul intact.

Spiritual seeking was in the very air during that time, in a rainbow of exotic flavors. No tradition seemed too far out — except of course the ones we were raised in.

Meditation on the front porch of Hippie Hollow.

Over the next few years, as I wandered the country during and after college, I would be exposed to a smorgasbord of strong-man cult leaders and life philosophies including macrobiotics, Steven Gaskin, Gurdjieff and Baba Ram Das.

But it was the world around me gone mad for the 13-year-old Guru Maharaji that precipitated my next stage of development as a potter.

From sophomore year on, I led a sort of double life, maintaining my status as a student while simultaneously meeting with a group of about 10 people to lay the framework for a commune just under the Ohio border from my college, in Elliotsville, Ky.

Half of us were students, the others a few years older, friends of ‘Jerry’ who had just purchased an abandoned farmhouse on 40 acres of steep land, hollows as they are called, at the end of a remote dead-end road. The last owners had ditched the property to fulfill their retirement dream of porch-sitting in town.

The senior members of our group were veterans of a commune in California. What we had in common were a strict vegetarianism and the desire to live in community on a self-sufficient farm.

Author’s twig hut frame, minus the plastic at Hippie Hollow.

We envisioned starting each day with group meditation on the erstwhile lonely porch, followed by manual labor in the fields, communal meals at the farmhouse and nights spent in individual huts fashioned of poles, plastic, mud and/or straw, scattered around the property. My college boyfriend, who also made pots, and I hoped to set up a pottery in the barn using local clay.

“Hippie Hollow” quickly became a reality much as envisioned. I designed my off-campus time to maximize the periods of time I could spend there.

We admired and hoped to emulate our old-timey neighbors who still cultivated with mules and stashed their sweet potatoes underneath their beds for the winter. The old folks showed us wild mayapple and pokeweed to eat, served sassafras tea and warned us about copperheads. They seemed happy to have us around, their own youth being strikingly absent, away in Vietnam. Politics were never spoken.

For fun, we hitchhiked into town for corn cakes at the diner and to go thrift shopping. Our luxurious outhouse was en pleine air with no roof, constructed on a hillock underneath a gorgeous flowering peach tree. It felt like a little Garden of Eden.

The author chinking log cabin with clay at Hippie Hollow.

In keeping with this turn back to the land, I was no longer feeling fulfilled just spinning my potters wheel. I wanted to dig my own clay and fire my pots with wood, to align my craft ideals with my lifestyle. Truly, as M.C. Richards, author of “Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person” mused, “It is not the pots we are forming, but ourselves.”

In 1971, my little group splintered as a mass hysteria of the time, in the form of the 13- year-old Maharaji, swept through my demographic.

One woman in our group gave away all her clothes in an attempt to purify herself. I remember attending a giant meditation on some college campus where hundreds of “preemies” as they were called, sat cross legged waiting to receive “the  knowledge” from the Maharaji. We were kept waiting for hours. His message of peace, love and joy was fine, but no way was this kid “Lord of the Universe.”

Nevertheless, my Quaker-raised boyfriend left the farm to follow him in a caravan out West, and I announced my own departure shortly thereafter — in the opposite direction.

A caption in the “Hippie Hollow” scrap book album, a copy of which I acquired many years later, reads: “Susan’s frame shelter. She took plastic off and went around the world.”

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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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