Susan Leader's pottery is distinctive and instantly recognizable. The cups, mugs, plates, platters and bowls are sturdy and ovenproof. Yet despite their heft, there is a delicacy to the design and a cheerfulness that unites the collection. The patterns are inspired by Nature and infused with country living in Vermont.

Back to the land

In the 1930's, Leader's parents joined the back-to-the-land social experiment, prelude to the radical hippie movement of the '60's, which began in the Green Mountains in the 1930's. She was raised at the bottom of Terrible Mountain in Andover, Vt. where, after youthful peregrinations, she still lives today.

One of her forays was to Japan for a year and a half when she was in her early twenties to be an apprentice in a pottery village.

Susan Leader displays a piece of her work while her husband John Specker plays the fiddle.
Susan Leader displays a piece of her work while her husband John Specker plays the fiddle. (Courtesy photo)
The potters insisted that she make a thousand little saki cups before she was allowed to proceed. There she met a Japanese farmer who explained that some folks make pots and some grow sweet potatoes, that it all added up to about the same thing, but that he personally preferred to do the latter.

"He spoke with the country wisdom of a native of Vermont," she recalls.

A lifetime rooted in the Vermont countryside

For thirty-four years, Leader's home and studio had been a former logging shack that her homesteading father had dragged down off Markham Mountain in the early 1950's with his tractor. Over the years it acquired odd modifications from the succession of "colorful transients" (hermits) who rented it from the family and helped pay the mortgage.


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They paid only twenty-five dollars a month, but that was still difficult to manifest. Eventually, Leader and each of her siblings took turns using it to play house during their hippie years.

In the late 1970's, she and her husband John Specker ground one last hopperful of whole wheat berries in the venerable old shack, then they moved across the meadow to a new, bigger cabin with their two little daughters and the old space became the pottery studio. In the late '80's and early '90's, they lived in that cabin while they built their present house on the property.

Seasonal cycles at the potters wheel

From late March to early November, Leader does all her throwing of clay out of doors, in a two-sided pony run-in shed attached to the east side of the building. As she works in the spring, she is serenaded royally by the frogs and simultaneously attacked by hordes of black flies. Soon the songbirds return. Summer crescendos with a magnificent display of tumbling blossoms on the four exuberant hydrangeas that are overtaking the open shed. As their pure white flowers deepen to pink and then dry to silver, Leader is still outside working away. Specker brings kettles of hot water from the wood cook stove to keep her hands warm as she pots the numbingly chilled clay, often under sprinkles of early snow.

Specker generally keeps up a steady stream of fiddling from the front porch. Neighbors can hear it almost a mile away through the woods. The freshly-thrown pots, still wet from the wheel, soak up mighty concerts of live music as they dry in the sun and wind, propped up on boards atop the shed roof. As Leader uses up her clay supply, Specker stops fiddling and coats the bisqued pots in glaze inside, in the former kitchen area. Then it's time for Leader to decorate them, sometimes with a new animal sponge he has designed - honeybee, turtle, fish, owl or dragonfly - in hues of periwinkle, rose, fern, or brown. Otherwise she'll draw upon her ample menagerie of woodland animals, and the flowers, and her signature hearts-and-checks patterns.

Eventually the winter closes in again and they time the kiln firings to keep the old cabin from freezing. Specker piles rocks on the roof to keep it from flying away - they suspect it's the clambering woodbine that holds up the sagging walls. Only about once a winter do they miscalculate and wake up to find her pots from the day before frozen solid, covered in white cracklings. Even then, they can sometimes be saved with a smoothing over of warm water.

Quintessentially local

"Almost everything I make is sold within a 50 to 100 mile radius," she said.

Leader is eager for the beginning of the Dorset and Londonderry farmer's markets.

"Handmade pottery calls out to be picked up, held, felt with one's eyes shut, not shopped for on the Internet. We go where the people are, where they're looking for local foods and where there's a vibrant community," Leader said.

Her creations are not merely a visual experience - "it has to do with sensing the world through your hands, picking up and holding things for daily use that have been created by other loving hands."

Leader believes that that market venue is "a splendid model for personalized, community-creating transactions, whether the actors are locals or visitors to the region." She thrives on the experience of offering her pottery in Vermont's local markets, which she calls "glittering displays of what's offered at this moment in history - in art, culture, and agriculture - all three."

Come see, come hear

Visitors who venture to Leader and Specker's house and studio are welcome. However, they are encouraged to wait until after mud season. Those interested in paying a visit should call Leader and Specker first at 802-875-2321 or e-mail susanleader@vermontel.net.

There is a selection of Leader's work for sale year round at Long Ago and Far Away in Manchester Center (next to Rite Aid). People may also visit Leader at her booth at the Dorset Farmers Market - which are held on Sundays beginning Mother's Day, May 12 - and the Farmers' Market in Londonderry on Saturdays.

Specker will be the musical event at the Dorset market on opening day; sample his fiddling at www.thespeckers.com.