"One of the things that's great about what we do is we take one of the most humble, raw materials that there is. This mud, this clay."
This is what Simon Leach says when he picks up a ball of clay from the several bricks which lay before him, kneading it as it makes slapping sounds between his hands.
Originally from England, Leach now runs a studio and workshop space from his home in Williamsburg.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Simon Leach often works outside, weather permitting, his Williamsburg home and studio. Below are photos of some of his pieces.
"With this clay, we take our bare hands, which is the humblest of instruments, and we take a revolving wheel, which is the humblest of machines," he goes on as he climbed atop the large, self-made pottery wheel that sits outside of Leach's home. Underneath a canvas tent, exposed to the muggy, sunny August afternoon, he spins the wheel manually with his foot to quickly shape the clay into a discernible, functional figure.
"We then take the most humble of all liquids, which is simple water," he said picking up a small sponge and squeezing it, watching the red, clay-tinted water run back into a small bowl. His wet hands then move back to the clay on the wheel and start creating an artful design.
"With our bare hands, we fashion an object for our use, our adornment."
It was a similar love and admiration for the functional beauty of pottery that led Simon's grandfather, Bernard Leach to live in Japan for 11 years - learning the craft from experts in the East instead of continuing with his work in painting, etching and sketching.
Bringing new knowledge back with him to start a business in Cornwall, England, Bernard Leach is now know as the "Father of British studio pottery."
"So my grandfather, of course, was very taken with it because he was an artist," Simon said.
He said his first encounter with pottery was at a party his grandfather was invited to where the guests could decorate bisque-fired pots with pigments and glaze.
Pottery became a family tradition, with Simon learning from his father, David, over five years beginning in 1979 before going out on his own.
Simon said he didn't always know he wanted to go into the family business, but the name helped when he started selling his own work.
"I used to go around to the more wealthy part of town and knock on people's doors, explain who I was and ask were they interested in seeing some of my work," Simon said. "Not everyone knew the name ... but definitely things worked out in my favor in that respect. Having the name, it's a great support and you've got that in the background there. Because Granddad was so well-known, of course, it does open doors."
Simon came over to the U.S. after a YouTube series of instructional videos he made gained attention here and he began doing in-person workshops. He met his wife, Jennifer, a native of State College, and the two moved into their house, once a three-family tenant house for the Etna Furnace, in September 2010.
"A lot of people in Williamsburg do know him," said Jennifer, who studied ceramics at Penn State and still creates pottery herself, citing the success Simon has been able to create for the business.
Simon enjoys living and working in the area, and has always believed that a potter should "sell your wares alongside where you make them."
Whether it's a small, oriental tea bowl or a large bottle vase, Leach has enjoyed getting his wares into the hands of locals.
"In this digital, fast-moving hurried life that we all lead, to have something that is handmade, something that you can drink out of, something that you can use, it's a great thing to be able to put that into the hands of ordinary, everyday people rather than a mass-produced article that's come from China," he said.
Leach subjects his pottery to a variety of decorative techniques. This includes a line of raku works, when the pots are taken out of the kiln when they're red hot and plunged into sawdust and straw. The smoke and flames turned the clay black and give it an old, chipped characteristic.
Most of his work is also stonewear fired, during which the kiln reaches a temperature of 2350 degrees Farenheit.
Simon's kiln is located in a large garage he turned into a studio. Inside, several unfinished pots sit on top of tables and line shelves on the walls. Several small electric wheels are also on hand for workshops he gives there, which people have traveled across state lines to attend.
Explaining how his custom-designed gas kiln works, Simon compared pulling a pot out of the fire to a farmer reaping his harvest.
"After we've done everything there is to do, and put our heart and soul into making it, we then have to put it into the fire where we cannot touch it," Simon said. "We can't say, 'Oh, but.' We can't say anything anymore. Our mouths are shut, and we just have to wait patiently for the fire to do its work. The result that comes out could be something mediocre, or it could be something extremely, extremely good."
Fans of his work, technique and teaching know that mediocrity is not a characteristic that should be readily applied to Leach. Gus Zucarro, 48, of Cranberry who has been making his own pottery on and off since fifth grade, said he has followed Simon on YouTube for years and enjoys his work and the way he glazes and finishes them.
"When I saw he [had moved] to Pennsylvania, I couldn't believe it," he said. "I just told my wife I was going away for a weekend for a workshop. It's really good that he's in our backyard."
Zucarro said he liked that the workshop he took with Leach was low-key, and that as a teacher, Leach was very attentive to people's personal needs.
"The good thing about Simon is he is someone you can reach out to if you have a problem or a question instead of spending hours figuring it out the hard way," he added.
Despite his family background and personal accomplishments, Leach is modest about his craftmanship. He said that he's not one to get "too heady" about his art.
"Good art will speak to the heart," Simon said. "The spirit in which something is made is important. Am I making this just to impress the in crowd and make a statement about being the radical, crazy something? A lot of people make art like that. Then there are others who make art for much purer, more simple, more direct, more straightforward reasons. That's kind of what I would like to do with my pots, keep them simple and pure in thought and intention."
Leach's studio is located at 517 Etna Furnace Road in Williamsburg. Call ahead if you plan to stop, 832-2936. For more information about Leach's pottery, studio or workshops, visit www.simonleachpottery.com.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.