Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Pottery studio visit starts retirement hobby

When our daughter, Nancy, was in Sue Mitchell’s 4-H project on home furnishings, she learned how to remove old paint and varnish from picture frames and other small items.

One day I stopped by our little rock house, which Nancy and two other college girls rented from Chub and me. She was outdoors removing several layers of old dark varnish from an antique walnut wardrobe. Her brown eyes sparkled as she said, "Mom, I’d rather do this more than anything else for the rest of my life." She’d never been that enthusiastic about anything! She soon began to buy and sell antiques from her garage and finally opened a shop in 1970.

In 1974, Nancy and I made a trip to England to visit friends and buy a few antiques. We asked a friend, Priscilla Wood, to go along, and she snapped up the opportunity. Priscilla and I were bicycle buddies before she moved from Missouri to Virginia. She is a potter and wanted to visit the famous Bernard Leach pottery studio in southwestern England. We took our three bicycles along, aware that February is England’s "fill dike" month. The bikes rode on top of our rented car, except for some nice rides between rains.

Because she is a potter, Priscilla made appointments for us to tour the Leach workshops.

As our car crested a hill near St. Ivies, we saw black smoke rolling from behind the next hill. Priscilla fairly screamed, "Oh! They’re firing the climbing kiln!" The wood smoke was coming from a smokestack that was not yet in sight. Nancy and I were ignorant about pottery making but were excited for Priscilla, who created some beautiful dishes we had in our homes.

She told us that Bernard Leach was known worldwide, and although he was retired his apprentices and his wife continued to work in his workshop and were well-known potters in their own rights.

We rolled into the parking lot and she hurried to where men were stoking 4-foot logs into the side of the Japanese-type "climbing" kiln. The heat rises from one firing chamber to the next, four chambers in all, each one higher than the one below. The workers were hot and sweaty on that chilly February day. One showed us the "throwing room" where pots were made, the drying racks up near the ceiling, decorating tables and more.

Nancy and I were especially interested in the finished products. We wandered through the sales room and looked long and hard at a small plate made by master potter Bernard Leach himself. It had a stylized rabbit decoration and was far out of our price range.

We selected two pieces from the "slightly irregular" shelf, not signed with the well-known "BL" mark and waited in the car. We watched Priscilla choose six or eight items. The salesman wrapped each one and added up the bill. She paid, and we knew we’d be on the road soon.

Suddenly Priscilla was hurrying back and forth across the room putting her purchases back on the shelves!

After another stop at the cash register, she emerged, smiling and clasping one small package to her chest. We didn’t ask questions. "My trip is complete," she said. "I now own a Leach rabbit!"

Later, we located the workshops of Michael Leach and David Leach, brothers of Bernard, and watched them make everything from mugs to large vessels. I was "bit by the bug." I wanted to learn to make pottery.

My husband and son created a motor-driven kick wheel for me, and Priscilla Wood was my mentor.

I started throwing on the wheel in 1975. After 24 years’ practice, it’s still fascinating.

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