Left in Andover: A potter turns toward reality

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

This is Part II of a two-part story on my journeys with pottery. Last week: Pottery as a spiritual pursuit

My original plan to take the Hippie Trail home across India through Afghanistan to the Middle East and thence back to the USA lost its appeal after my year and a half working in Japanese folk potteries.

Inspired over what I had learned about traditional throwing techniques, local clay, ash glazes and wood fired climbing kilns, I was eager to return to Vermont, to apply my new-found knowledge.

Susan with pottery jug outside the Pear Tree Meadow hermit’s cabin in Andover in 1974.

Although a last minute hand injury interfered with my ability to perform my dish washing duties, the Norwegian car-carrying ship that had contracted my return trip generously welcomed me aboard as a guest, Yokohama to Los Angeles. After a relaxing trip across the American continent via Trans-Canadian Railway, I arrived back in Andover in the summer of 1973.

My parents and siblings immediately pitched in to build me a cabin in which to live and work in our Pear Tree Meadow off Middletown Road. This being my Luddite stage, I planned to live off the grid with kerosene lamps and no appliances. As a result, I insisted on situating the cabin way far from the road out of reach of telephone poles.

Processing clay by hand, and feet, 1974.

My brother, having materialized from his own travels, and I went prospecting, and dug truckloads of local clay, which I processed by foot power. To support this project, I procured a grant from the Vermont Crafts Council and continued to pick apples and prune apple trees seasonally.

My brother and I built three wood-fired kilns on the property. We burned cords of softwood slabs from a local sawmill for fuel, and exhausted ourselves in a good way by our efforts.

The pots I favored making during this period were mostly semi-closed forms with small necks. I threw them on the primitive wooden kick wheel that I had hauled back from Japan on my back, now installed directly into the Vermont earth in a specially designed corner of the cabin. My glazing was a rich greenish brown from ashes and the melted baking soda and salt that I threw into the kiln at peak temperature.

Feeding the wood kiln in Andover in 1974.

The terroir quality of my pots was very much in tune with my ideals and what I had experienced in rural Japan. No economic necessity hung over me, so I made completely unsaleable work. I was single, did not drive a car and lived rent free in a cabin without modern conveniences, which I saw as obstacles, separating me from direct daily engagement with nature.

Fast forward to 1979: After numerous additional forays out into the world, including being arrested as an anti-nuclear power activist at Seabrook, N.H., I have come home once again, to this same cabin, to live in Thoreauvian simplicity with my partner and husband-to-be, John Specker.

Except, since I have now had my fill of nature, John has gone to quite a bit of trouble burying a semi-adequate electrical line leading to the cabin. In winter, we lug groceries and supplies across the meadow in deep snow.

We have no running water, but there is a dug well up in the woods, and a pond for wash water. The seasons pass as we devote ourselves to our art.

Top, in 1974, the cabin a work in progress with wooden kick wheel in earthen floor and kerosene lamps. Bottom, same room, the late 1980s was also a showroom. living room and inventory space.

1984: My in-laws have provided us with a car. Six months pregnant, I pass my driver’s test. We welcome a daughter that summer. Shortly thereafter, I open my eyes one morning and see not utopia, but gut-wrenching poverty.

I toss aside my resistance to “polluting” my pottery with money. This seems a more practical scheme than turning John’s passion, fiddle-playing, into a paying proposition. We need a house — and an indoor toilet, a driveway, bedrooms, everything; not a cabin that sways in the wind, a stove that requires stoking several times a night to keep us from freezing. An outhouse with no door is picturesque — but not with a babe in arms.

Had I better learned my lessons in Japan, and transformed my passion into a business before having a child, I might have continued to make Japanese-inspired pottery and earned a living.

However, age 33 and in need of an instant fix, I change course abruptly. The hermit’s cabin of my childhood is already electrified and closer to the road. I order an electric kiln. You just turn it on, leave it and go to sleep for the night.

Vermont’s only clay supplier is still close by in Rutland. Throwing boughten clay of uniform consistency on an electric wheel is a cinch, like opening a TV dinner. John goes on standby, ready to throw himself into making a family business together. I sign up for craft fairs. We are all-in, ready to make amends with our 30s, for 20s spent chasing rainbows.

Outdoor bathtub still at the ready. Any takers?

But the pot of gold was there all the time. I enter my wares in the marketplace at the peak of a good economic era. This is before the days of internet sales, when local gift shops, even in small town Vermont, are still viable.

I take a deep dive into local tradition and fall in love with spongeware, the iconic pottery of early America. It comes to feel insincere for me to keep trying to create Japanese pottery in America. If I can distill the Japanese attitude toward work and throwing techniques, and create functional work as part of a family team, I will feel fulfilled.

Assembling a boxful of my new spongeware pottery designs I load the car and randomly drive around the area to gift shops, hoping to make a sale.

A big white house on Route 30 in Jamaica catches my attention with its sign  “American Country Designs.” I pull over. The proprietress likes it. She likes the hearts, which I worry are hokey. She likes the pink, I worry it is too pretty. She buys it all and I drive home never expecting to hear from her again.

Author with husband John Specker and toddler, 1989, ‘new’ cabin in the background.

In fact, this was the beginning of a business, mentoring and personal relationship that has lasted more than 20 years. My pottery making started out as an escape from the humdrum of daily life. It transmogrified into a lifestyle expression of living close to the land.

…Ultimately, it placed me in direct relationship with normal, every day reality, people of all different backgrounds and the exhilarating challenge of earning a living. Over the ensuing years, the phone rang off the hook with orders as our work became sought after across the country, largely due to exposure in magazines such as Country Living and House Beautiful.

Over the last 25 years, I have participated in the local farmers market movement as both a vendor and board member, reaping rewards both transactional as well as communal. While pottery-making has remained a source of creative satisfaction, my relationships with fellow vendors, regular customers and visitors alike, have become equally important.

I continue to be both stunned and humbled by calls such as I received just last month. More than 15 years ago, a woman purchased a blue star design bowl from me. She has been sharing it with a beloved pet for most of that time. The pet just died. We both ended up in tears discussing possible future uses for the bowl. She just wanted to share with me her love for both her pet and the pottery, made sacramental through time and daily use.

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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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