Left in Andover: The stunning strength of Erika

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I have yet to fulfill my cousin Erika’s expectations of me as an artist. But this is my failing, not hers.

One excuse is that I truly enjoy being a craftsperson, making functional clay pots. Another reason is economic; I don’t feel free to take that much risk. At heart, I am not brave like Erika.

Susan and Erika in the late 1970s.

A refugee from East Germany, Erika came into my life in the early 1960s when she married my older cousin in a stylish church ceremony in Bennington. Her exotic German accent added mystique to the occasion.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, as Erika raised her brood of four, our farm in Andover was a regular destination. A couple times a month, Erika’s gang would spill out onto our lawn at Popplewood in happy pandemonium.

Dad relished visiting with his accomplished nephew. But I was riveted by Erika, with her artistic flare and light-hearted approach to parenting. It is because of her efforts that our families became close. I was 15 years older than my little second cousins. Many years later, as adults they would take a special interest in my own daughters.

Another 15 years older than me, Erika seemed the happy suburban wife. She wove gorgeous scarves from colorful wool in a sun-lit front room, and stenciled trunks in classic Pennsylvania Dutch designs.

It was not until she divorced my cousin that I became aware of the trauma of her childhood in wartime Germany, and the intensity of her artistic calling. I had misjudged her completely.

After the divorce, Erika spent a summer as a counselor at Farm & Wilderness Camps in Plymouth. I was in my late 20s, and, rather awkwardly at first, started to relate to her as a peer.

I invited her to come along to a big Fourth of July house party in Cuttingsville. But fireworks were her worst nightmare, evoking memories of exploding bombs.

Erika, center, in the long skirt, and family gather at Popplewood in the mid-1970s.

It turned out Erika was not destined for the hippie Vermont lifestyle. But she did find her calling as a highly individualistic oil painter. She conjured horrifying scenes from her childhood as the daughter of a German soldier. As she described her process, “I pull them out of myself slowly, like pieces of skin that rip.”

As I was making a business out of pottery, Erika loyally purchased my bowls and pie plates. At the same time, she also ferreted out my crazy paintings. I like to think that at one point we were egging each other on.

But Erika quickly superseded me, baring her intrepid heart and soul. Her imagery was terrifying, honest- and spectacularly colorful. Nor did she shrink from depicting her journey with ovarian cancer later on.

The cover of Erika’s brilliant book filled with her art.

Erika’s brilliant 2017 book “Memories of Cancer to Come” is a testimony to her love of family, and to living life on her own terms as a fierce independent female.

The book is in fact so frightening I never dared to read it until this summer, after she was gone. Here are her instructions on how to become a bag lady:

“She shopped in Milano. She shopped in Berlin. She shopped in New York, Caracas, Paris. She lost her ovaries her hair her lover. She kept her shopping bags Just in CASE.”

The quintessential Cousin Erika might appear without notice, accordion strapped around her slender body. The bohemianism of this mature woman in the long skirts left us youngsters in the dust.

She nullified my convenient equation between size and strength. Erika was tiny, skinny like an iron rod. She could trot up and down Mt. Washington, take an afternoon nap then do it all over again. Her strength was non-negotiable, forged in the double crucible of war and disease.

Erika was a poet and an outsider artist.

My father was ambivalent over a non-Jewish German marrying into the family. But Erika won him over with her dedication to visiting in Vermont as well as her own open door hospitality in Concord, Mass.

Indeed, after Erika divorced my cousin, she came to Popplewood to ask my father’s blessing. I remember a hot summer’s day, Dad lying in bed upstairs in the farmhouse. The conversation dragged. With the fate of four great nieces and nephews at stake, Dad for once was struck dumb.

I too am dumb-founded now as I peruse Erika’s cancer book. Outsider art accompanied by brutally frank feminist prose poetry leaves no room for excuses.

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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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