The Rugged Pots of Janet Leach
THERE must have been about the same number of studio potters named Leach in 20th-century England as there were composers named Bach in 18th-century Germany. They seem to be everywhere at one time or another: first and foremost, Bernard, known as the father of the studio-pottery movement; two of his sons, Michael and David, both making their individual pottery; John, grandson of Bernard and son of David; Margaret, who was no relation but worked for a short time at the Leach Pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall, England; and finally, Janet.
Janet - a Texan by birth (b. 1918) - was Bernard's third wife. She met him in the United States, got to know him in Japan, and came to St. Ives in 1956 to marry him. Bernard died in 1979. Janet - described by her husband as "a potter in her own right" - is still firmly ensconced at the Leach Pottery, still a working potter.
Janet Leach's pots are quite distinct from her famous and influential husband's, something she determinedly made sure of from the start.
"I didn't study under Bernard," she says with characteristic robustness, "otherwise I would have been making a lot of little Bernard pots like a lot of his ex-students."
Tony Birks, an eminent British writer on potters and pottery, well described Janet Leach's work in "Art of the Modern Potter": "She makes pottery which speaks for itself. It is made quickly and handled sternly: licked into shape. If it does not come alive, then it fails to meet the test."
Birks goes on to say that the vitality of Janet Leach's pots is, however, unlike the "breathtaking, cool physical grace of Hans Coper" (who, with Lucie Rie, is often credited with preeminence among the ranks of postwar British potters who have developed a new tradition away from the long dominant Anglo-Orientalism of Bernard Leach) "but a much more fallible ripeness. No one would warm to a melon or a vegetable marrow if its symmetry were perfect. It is so with Janet Leach's ceramics. They bulge where it seems right they should. They squat and shrug. They are not funny ... but they are not grave...."
Her pots are, in essence, very human. Not only are they the result of her experience and conviction, they seem to have developed convictions of their own through being subjected to experience. They have been thrown and biffed, pushed, pressed, dented, and slashed - or so their appearance suggests. They have been doused or lashed with glaze, or subjected, unglazed, to the effects of wood ash in the kiln. Either way they have "been through the fire."
These pots have the forthright presence of Janet Leach herself. They haven't forgotten the elemental clay out of which they are made. They are definitely "pots" and by no means "ceramic sculpture," a trend of today that she deplores with humorously huffy irony. The peculiar forms of such ceramic sculptures she calls "pretzels" and "log cabins" and "suitcases." Not her scene at all.
"One trap I never fell into, which makes me a bit old-fashioned at my age, is the `sculpture pot,' " she says. Of course, she agrees, sculpture can be made of any material, including clay. "But if I'm a potter, I'm not a sculptor!"
This fad (as it is in her eyes) "started in America and it came over here and now there are more so-called sculptor-potters than there are potters.... And they don't call 'em bowls any more, they call 'em vessels. They talk about my vessels."
Suddenly the pretentiousness of ceramic sculpture seems absurd - not true down-to-earth pottery any more.
Interestingly enough, Janet Leach started out - after leaving home for New York in her late teens - with ambitions to be a sculptor. World War II put a stop to that. No artist "with a conscience" worked during that period, she says; she converted her growing interest in steel sculpture into shipyard welding on battleships.
Then after the war, it was pottery that began to preoccupy her. "Maybe I'd done a little too much welding."
The kind of sculpture that had interested Leach was what she thought of as "functional" - sculpture for architecture. Function always mattered to her. The same with her pottery: "I found a kind of pleasure when somebody ... put some potatoes in a bowl I'd made, you know what I mean?" She wanted to get away from "useless stuff."
When she first met Bernard Leach - in 1952 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he was lecturing during a tour of America en route to Japan - she says, "I'd read his book but wasn't happy with my work." She felt Bernard Leach might help her out of her dissatisfaction. But it was his Japanese colleague, the potter Shoji Hamada, who had set up the St. Ives Pottery with Leach and was with him on the American tour, who provided her with the seminal shock she needed.
Even now, as she describes what this event meant to her, an intense whisper conveys how much of a revelation it was. "It was amazing." She says that by that time she was a good technician on the potter's wheel, able to make controlled "smooth and slick" pots as if she was turning wood or metal on a lathe.
But Hamada! "There he was sitting cross-legged, sort of pushing the clay around, making patty-cake." She watched Hamada, "very loose and fluid and all, and I thought that's what's wrong with my pots." She was bowled over by Hamada's approach to the clay - almost like a child playing, very relaxed. From this discovery, she developed what she calls her own organic pottery.
Before going to St. Ives, however, she went for two years to Japan. Bernard and Hamada were there still, and she was to study under Hamada. After half a year, however, Hamada suggested she should learn not just from him but from the still existing rural potteries in Japan - "back to the horse's mouth" to which Hamada himself attributed his roots.
She chose a remote mountainous region called Tamba, where one pottery village still practiced a 2,000-year-old pottery tradition. The unpretentiousness of Tamba pottery, its utilitarian basis, seemed and still seems to her everything that the idea of "beauty from function" ought to be.
She points to a red-glazed ceramic bottle up on a nearby shelf. "That's Tamba. A sake bottle made for the fishing ships that I think is beautiful. They made sake bottles like we would make milk bottles. They were still making them, carrying them over the hills to sell in market." She gestures to another pot. "That's a 400-year-old pot from the same area. I call that `the pot I can't make.' I look at it from my bed every morning. It's got so much life and vitality to it. I'm very fond of it. It challanges
"They were just containers," she says, "they weren't art objects."
This must come close to the Janet Leach idealism. She would go along with the observation made by ceramic authority Daniel Rhodes in his book about Tamba pottery:
" `Design' is hardly a word which can be applied to an old Tamba pot. The jar `happens.' It seems to have formed itself."
The Tamba potters were and are farmers, peasants. The Bizen potters she also studied, witnessing at one time the 8-day firing of a Bizen kiln, were more sophisticated.
Janet Leach admits now that her time in rural Japan was "in a funny sort of way ... a period of confusion" for her. "I was looking and questioning. I think I built up a reservoir which I'm still using." She still hadn't developed her own style.
But the effect, nevertheless, was her strong engagement with Tamba and Bizen pottery, which Bernard had looked at but rejected as an influence in his own work. This made it possible for her not to be overwhelmed by his assertive influence and reputation when she came to Britain.
She recognizes the predicament, however, that comes with modern work based on an ancient tradition. "We're not peasants, and we can't be peasants," she says. But she believes that the "clay quality" of Tamba pots is what has helped her to avoid pretension. Her pottery "is based on what I call an honest tradition - my 20th-century interpretation of an honest tradition."
Through Tamba pottery Janet Leach had found "what was really right for me." Probably her need to "hold her own" in the face of Bernard's convictions strengthened her own individuality as a potter. "He was spoiled," she says, "because he was accustomed to adoring students - and his wife would say `Go away, I'm busy!' No student would say that."
He would watch her on the wheel, which she didn't want. He'd ask "Don't you want my criticism?" And her reply was: "Not till it's finished."
As for Hamada - whom she considers her mentor, and who she believes did think of her as a student - she was never sure what he thought of her pots "because he never said anything." Far from unnerving her, however, she was "happy" with this silence. "It didn't matter."
In St. Ives, there is no local natural clay, nothing like the dark red and black clays at hand in rural Japan. So Leach developed, by experimenting with different minerals and oxides in clays available in Britain, five different clays she could use for the effects she wanted. Also, with no wood available for the ideal of a wood-fired kiln, she had to learn to "get by." The placement of very small pots six or eight at a time in perforated boxes filled with wood chips and sawdust in the kiln enables her to
make ash-glazed pots of great character.
Some of her pots, like some Tamba ware, are enormous and very heavy. Some have pot bellies. Some are tall and rugged. Some are small and wonky. Some have lugs - small ears - that derive from functional handles, but are now features that are not exactly decorative so much as part of the endearing character and even the humor of the Janet Leach style.
Unlike Bernard Leach, Janet Leach is not a teacher-lecturer-author, nor does she much like demonstrating technique. But using a kind of mime, she did vividly indicate to me how she passes a pot through a falling stream of glaze. A poured liquid is, she says, "the only straight line in nature, like a waterfall." With glaze "of a kind of thick coffee-cream consistency, no lumps - and you've got to be right too - you pour it, you see, and you get a stream, right? Well, now, you pass the pot through it. If y ou spontaneously pass the pot through it, it always fits. It always fits."
The fall of the glaze and the form of the pot interact to determine how the glaze is "as it lays on the pot."
This "works for everybody" she assures me, "once they learn not to try to tickle it - once they learn to let it go - to let it work intead of them work."
Which sounds like profoundly good advice for many other aspects of life as well as glazing a pot a la Janet Leach.