Left in Andover: Communing with commune life

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Blame it on my father that I ended up joining a commune. I was sitting on the porch at Popplewood when he tossed me the New York Times open to the family/style section. (To see the article, click here.)

“Where Craftsmen Pursue Philosophy and an Almost Monastic Life” the Aug. 5, 1975 headline said. I had never heard of the Rochester Folk Art Guild, a farm-based crafts commune in upstate New York. But my dream had always been to find a pottery commune.

Nor had I heard of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1949), upon whose philosophy the guild was based. According to this Russian-born mystic, humans are born and live out their lives asleep.

Gurdjieff charted a path to awakening called “The Work.” This was his fusion of eastern spiritual disciplines spiced with proprietary music and sacred dance.

A piece of literature from the Rochester Folk Art Guild.

Mrs. Louise March (1900-1987), the founder and head of the Rochester Folk Art Guild, served as personal secretary and translator to Gurdjieff at his Paris Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in the 1930s and  ’40s. Her authority as a Work psycho-spiritual facilitator derived from this intimate association with him.

A 1975 testimony by the Rochester Folk Art Guild’s pottery studio manager attests to Mrs. March’s success at applying her art background to the shaping of human subjects:

“The usefulness of any vessel or container, of which man is perhaps a higher form, lies in the volume and quality of emptiness that it encloses. In clay, we consider this to be the substance of the craft; in man this is the highest art he is capable of,” and “Who can be accepted into the pottery? Just anyone can’t break in, unless they come on their knees and be guided by those in front of them.”

On Nov. 24, 1975, I scribbled the following note to my parents: “Today I am (hitchhiking) to Rochester for an appointment with Mrs. March. Address is Susan Leader, Rochester Folk Art Guild, Middlesex, New York. You’ll either see me again soon or else I’ll be there for a good while.”

The tidy, 300-acre Finger Lakes estate, home to the Rochester Folk Art Guild since 1967, encompassed 11 acres of vineyards, 75 acres of wheat, beef herds, hen houses, gardens, farm buildings and houses.

Ashes from burning the pruned vineyard trimmings were used to formulate glazes in the potting sheds. The production and sale of pottery, blown glass, weaving, sewing and prints provided a viable cash basis for the group. It seemed my dream come true.

The 40-resident worker bees toiled seven days a week, 10 hours a day in obligatory silence to keep the place shipshape. Tasks, whether farm- or crafts-related, were first and foremost a vehicle for inward development. Ergo, it was immaterial whether I would be allowed into the pottery.

Pottery workers at the guild, a position Susan finally acquired.

In my personal interview upon arriving at the farm, Mrs. March identified impatience as my cardinal fault. The path she charted for my redemption was as a hand chopper of vegetables for the dining hall.

Though I had nothing against chopping vegetables, it was not my passion. In time, I came to suspect scullery maid was just the first task assigned to all female novices.

As I wrote at the time: “The idea is you are supposed to seek out tasks that are unpleasant, boring or antithetical to your nature. That way you get an inner struggle going on through which you can learn self control. Then all of a sudden you start liking what you are doing, no matter what it is.”

After weeks measured in bushels of perfectly chopped peppers, onions and squash, I was released to the sewing department. The pottery studio remained as distant as if I had never left Andover.

The lesson was supposed to be that I would never arrive there until I ceased to care. According to Gurdjieff, we ordinary “sleeping” mortals can never know what we really want so what did it matter, anyway.

Small groups of us met weekly with Mrs. March in her chambers. She sat beautifully coiffed, ensconced in an easy chair in her signature pink slippers. The rest of us sat at attention, ready to bare our souls, receive criticism and steel ourselves for the tasks ahead.

To keep her flock on track, Mrs. March, a consummate actress and manipulator, would sometimes take the stage at lunchtime scolding, ranting and abusing her captive audience as lazy fools.

A letter from Susan to friends on the outside, detailing the level of control the guild maintained.

Then, in an abrupt change of tone, she would overflow with compassion, causing us to feel the scolding was so well justified we were lucky she was still willing to keep us around. Her very presence in a room made people stand straighter, be less clumsy, work harder.

By late winter, I finally worked my way into the pottery studio. But the rigid hierarchy and bugged authoritarian atmosphere (conversations were carefully reported back to Mrs. March for review) were wearing on me.

Because of the intensely insular, controlled environment of the farm, I placed the blame for my increasing dissatisfaction on myself.

The reality was that, despite its productivity and notable creative achievements, the guild structure was not for me.

In the end, I grabbed the nearest exit. That spring, Mom wrote me that Dad was suffering really bad headaches. Using Dad’s illness as a pretext, I asked Mrs. March permission to make a special visit home.

Once outside the confines of those beautiful, but restrictive grounds, I never looked back.

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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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