Left in Andover: Perfectly ordinary beauty

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I spent most of my year and a half in Japan, from late 1972 to early 1974, bent over a potters wheel. But I did take a monthlong break between apprenticeships to hitchhike around the country. I managed to visit every single one of the six ancient kiln sites of Japan: Tokoname, Echizen, Seto, Shigaraki, Bizen and Tamba.

Each of these thousand-year-old pottery traditions has its own unique style of ware. This is due to the variations in raw materials mined at each site, as well as the different methods of wheel-throwing traditional to each village.

A clay pot Susan made with added local mixed-in
sand and rocks.

In recent times, our American local foods movement has expanded the French concept of terroir, the impact of soil and climate on viticulture, to celebrate the uniqueness of certain specialty crops and products such as cheeses.

There is an analogous way to consider the distinctive wares of each of the six ancient kiln sites. For instance, Shigaraki pottery, one of my favorites, is characterized by tiny chunks of quartz embedded in the indigenous reddish toned clay. Even under a natural ash glaze, this gives the pots a delicious pebbled appearance, like a Ben & Jerry’s mix-in of teeny tiny marshmallows.

This look can be imitated anywhere on earth using boughten clay. But my hero, the great folk art and tea ceremony philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, considered it dishonest for potters to contrive at wabi-sabi by means other than terroir. “To set out to copy naturally caused irregularities is fatal; the beauty vanishes,” he warned.

Before I traveled to Japan, when I was a college student studying ceramics, I used to scrutinize pictures of Japanese vases. I was obsessed with trying to replicate their asymmetries. In particular, I was fascinated by subtle jags in the curving shapes.

An authentic vase Susan made from Vermont clay on my wooden potters wheel using the coil and throw method.

But no matter how many all-nighters I pulled in my college pot shop, I failed at perfecting just the right irregularities. It was not until I went to work at a pottery in Tamba, one of the six ancient kiln sites of Japan, that I understood why.

The jags are inherent to a primitive method of coil and throw potting, whereby clay is added in stages to complete a pot. In contrast, an American potter using an electric wheel would just complete a whole pot out of one big initial chunk of clay.

I have made some honest coil and throw pots out of pure Vermont clay on the primitive wooden kick wheel which I brought home to Andover from Japan. I have also faked it by mixing rocks and sand from my property into my commercial clay to simulate a rustic local look.

Regardless, at this point, my ceramics ideals have shifted away from Japanese aesthetics. I now worship the simplicity as well as symmetry of the classic American mixing bowl.

I fell in love with an unsigned red earthenware one in the early 1980s. The owner was at the time a tenant at Popplewood, and displayed the giant mixing bowl on top of our old fridge there. Its flared sides seemed capable of holding unlimited volume.

Susan’s ordinary but beautiful American mixing bowl on her front porch.

The design is barebones, intended for the humblest of kitchen tasks. The inside is covered in yellow glaze. The outside is exposed red clay. I found it so inspiring that I paid house calls to view it every few years, after its owner had moved to Chester.

To my utter surprise and delight, the bowl appeared on my front porch a few months ago as a gift. I cherish my mixing bowl as the American embodiment of Yanagi’s tea bowl ideal:

“It is not made to display effects of detail, so there is not time for the disease of technical elaboration to creep in. It is not inspired by theories of beauty, so there is no occasion for it to be poisoned by over-awareness. Why should such a perfectly ordinary bowl be so beautiful? The beauty is an inevitable outcome of that very ordinariness.”

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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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