Simon Leach hunches over his spinning treadle wheel, his hands gray and glistening as they pull and press a clay bowl into shape.
Inside his Millheim studio, a converted garage warding off a bitter January day with space heaters, he strikes a familiar pose. To the steady tock of the foot-powered wheel, he peers at his creation. His fingers make tiny, deft adjustments as smooth as the rim of his emerging bowl.
But his comfort at the wheel comes not just from decades of making pottery.
It’s in his blood.
Leach, 58, is a third-generation potter — but with a special lineage.
His grandfather was Bernard Leach, a celebrated and influential potter considered the founder of the British studio pottery movement. After studying with master ceramics artists in Japan, he brought the techniques and styles back to his native England in 1920 and started a seminal pottery studio in the Cornwall seaside town of St. Ives.
His son, David Leach, followed in his footsteps and became a noted postwar potter. Both men were honored further by being inducted into the prestigious Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
“A lot of things I do, my dad did. A lot of things my dad did, my granddad did,” said Simon Leach, whose two brothers also are potters.
“But they’re good things, the way we put on a handle, the way it’s finished off. The skills are passed down, and I’m very, very grateful to have that, to have that heritage behind me.”
Each bowl, mug, plate or vase spun into existence carries on the family tradition, but Leach has given it a contemporary touch. Seven years ago, he began making instructional pottery videos and posting them on a then-fledgling service called YouTube.
Since, he has produced more than 900 videos, drawing viewers around the world into his studio and life, ending most programs with his signature line, “Keep practicing.” On a more traditional note, he has co-written an acclaimed guide, “Simon Leach’s Pottery Handbook.”
In both mediums, he seeks to pass along the joy of making pottery.
“You’ve got a lump of clay that’s shapeless and formless, and suddenly, you’re pulling out that formless entity or shape, something that’s hopefully beautiful,” Leach said. “That’s the fun thing about it.”
‘Between East and West’
In November, Leach and his wife moved into their Millheim home, a converted barn with exposed beams and a panoramic view of the countryside.
Before that, the couple lived near Wiliamsburg, Blair County, for four years, in an old iron-furnace stone house that doubled as a pottery studio.
Leach came to the United States in 2009 after residing in Spain for two decades.
But his journey really began in Japan.
His grandfather, born in Hong Kong, studied art in London before returning to the Far East in 1909. Over the next decade, he learned Japanese ceramics techniques from master potters, among them Shoji Hamada.
Moving to England, the two friends started the St. Ives pottery. Chris Staley, a Penn State distinguished professor of art and a ceramicist for 44 years, said the pottery became a celebrated collaboration between Hamada, “probably the most renowned potter from Japan ever,” and Leach, “an iconic figure for anyone involved in ceramics.”
Leach absorbed the traditional Japanese aesthetics that “promoted the natural qualities of clay and glazes” and imported them to his native country, serving as a cultural bridge, Staley said.
“Bernard Leach made this huge connection between East and West,” Staley said.
In 1952, Leach and Hamada embarked on a coast-to-coast United States tour. Noted American potters Warren MacKenzie and Clary Illian had already gone over to Leach’s pottery studio to study with him, but the tour extended the English master’s influence even further.
Among the young potters moved by Leach was Peter Voulkos, who rose to fame for his abstract Expressionist ceramic sculptures and become, in Staley’s opinion, “the most famous ceramics artist in the 20th century.”
“That tour, basically, I think, was the catalyst for the whole ceramic explosion in the United States,” Staley said.
Sixty-two years later, Simon Leach appreciates his grandfather’s historical significance.
“He sort of brought back the idea that pottery could be an art form — not just plain, utilitarian pieces that could be used every day, but something beautiful,” Leach said.
Photos of his grandfather sit on shelves in his studio display gallery. Something of Bernard Leach’s spirit resides in the room as well, in the muted, earthy colors of the glazes coating the bowls, pots and vases, in the Asian-influenced lines Leach and his brothers favor.
“It’s inescapable, really, because it’s in our blood, I’m afraid,” Leach said. “So we don’t try to hide it.”
‘Skills under my belt’
As a child in southwestern England, Leach was part of the pottery world, but only visited it occasionally.
Home from boarding school for holidays, he sometimes would wander out of boredom over to this father’s shop on their property, pop his head in and ask to make a pot.
“I would go in and have a go at the wheel,” Leach said. “It was frustrating because I hadn’t really learned the skills. It was all a bit hit or miss.”
At 17, he left school but didn’t join his father, instead going to work as a lathe operator for Westland Helicopters. To him, it was as good a choice as any.
“I’m the sort of person, I’m very unambitious,” Leach said. “I didn’t have a great drive or ambition to go and be anybody in particular. So I’m sort of happy to sit back a bit and watch life go by.”
Four years into the job, in 1977, layoffs hit. Leach volunteered for a severance package, bought a motorcycle and sidecar and, with a friend, set out for adventures under sunnier skies in France, Spain and North Africa.
When the money ran out after a few months, Leach returned and kicked around a bit, staying with a silversmith friend near the village of Somerset and living a bohemian life for half a year.
“We spent evenings freezing in his house with our feet in his gas oven, just trying to stay warm,” Leach said. “He’d be playing blues on his guitar.”
Just for something to do over the winter, he went to a nearby college’s art department from time to time and threw pots.
“So I actually got a bit of skills under my belt, as it were, by practicing and throwing and making stuff,” Leach said.
His heritage’s call was growing louder.
But on his next overseas trip, he found another calling.
‘Learn the trade’
Itching to travel again, Leach caught a bus to Greece.
He wound up in Crete, and then on the remote island of Gavdos as a farm caretaker. There, while tending to pigs and other livestock, living off provisions arriving weekly by boat, he kept his hand in pottery.
He found clay on the island, refined it as best he could, fashioned a makeshift wheel and got a few pots out of the deal.
While in Greece, he also got religion.
After meeting young American Christian missionaries, he became born again. His spiritual awakening, however, couldn’t help him with his expired visa. He was given three options: pay a fine, go to jail or depart.
“As I didn’t have any money and I didn’t fancy the option of going to jail particularly, I thought perhaps I’d quietly leave the country,” Leach said. “So that’s what I did.”
At home again, he plunged into his two new passions.
He fell in with a local Christian fellowship group and underwent spiritual training for four months. But after thinking about leaving to be a missionary, he reconsidered.
“I think the reality was that God actually wanted me to stay home and work out my Christianity with my family,” Leach said.
He went to work in his father’s pottery for the next four years, finally embracing the family business.
And it was work.
“That was like an 8:30-to-6 o’clock, every day job,” Leach said. “I had to learn and make everything that (my father) wanted me to make.
“A lot of the stuff I was making to start with wasn’t really good enough. So I had to learn the trade through doing, and through watching, and through being told what to do, how to do it. And I got better and better.”
Though his religious fires burn less brightly these days, he said his days of attending prayer meetings and handing out pamphlets on the street steered him toward success as much as making pots did.
“I was feeling good. I was very interested in Christianity and sharing my faith with other people ... I was very upfront and forward with people,” Leach said.
“I think I was a very shy boy. But something happened to me, and I got changed and became much more of an extrovert, a complete character flip or temperament change from being a rather shy boy, somebody who, if the doorbell rang, I would not answer it. I would run away upstairs.”
‘Show people what it is’
He struck out on his own in 1984.
“It seemed like (my father) wanted some sort of commitment from me that I was going to take over the running of the pottery, and I wasn’t sure that was what I really wanted to do,” Leach said.
Renting a stable for a studio, he would fill his car’s trunk with pots, drive to an an affluent neighborhood and knock on doors.
To his surprise and delight, he made sales and took orders for more. So he kept on knocking.
Leach credits his religious work for giving him enough self-confidence to drum up business.
“People sort of say, ‘I could never do that,’ ” Leach said. “Being out in the streets and talking to people and saying, ‘Take a gospel tract,’ I suppose there’s a certain boldness, you know.
“I didn’t have boldness. I was a timid sort of person when I grew up. But then I became a bold person, just an outgoing person. So that made it easy for me to go on YouTube.”
That started in 2007, two years after the revolutionary video-sharing website started and 18 years after he fled England’s dreary weather and moved to Valencia, Spain, with his first wife and toddler son.
“I was making pots as a living to try to get by, scratching a living, not doing particularly well at it, just getting by and making ends meet,” Leach said.
“So when I got on YouTube, it was great to have a bunch of people who were enthusiastic and appreciated what I was doing. I got a lot of thumbs-up from people that encouraged me.”
Throughout the past seven years, his goal has stayed the same: to show “just another day in the pottery.”
“I thought the best way to make these videos meaningful to people was just be myself, and just show people what it is to be a potter, working in a studio on a daily basis, and talk about some of the things you come up against,” he said. “So that’s what I’ve done.”
‘Friend in the cupboard’
YouTube helped bring Leach to the United States.
After noticing that many of his followers were Americans, he decided to come over in 2009 in hopes of landing a teaching position. When that didn’t pan out, he and his current spouse settled in Barryville, N.Y., a tiny hamlet along the Delaware River.
Four wheels and a kiln turned a rented cabin in the woods into a small studio — not ideal but a good place to start.
“I could run my own workshops out of my studio,” Leach said. “What I really wanted to do was a hands-on approach to teaching people to work with clay in a very direct manner.”
In 2010, they moved to Williamsburg, closer to his wife’s mother who lived near State College. Leach staged more workshops, something he finds as rewarding as making his videos.
He likes empowering people to create with their hands, but teaching also honors the legacies of his illustrious predecessors.
“The name Leach carries a lot of weight in the pottery world,” he said. “I think I just want to be true to myself, and if I can pass along to someone else some nugget, something that will help, show them how to do a technique, then they get inspired.”
He intends to resume his workshops this spring. For now, he’s getting to know his new neighbors — including the Amish from whom he buys fresh eggs and butter — and throwing pots on a wooden treadle wheel designed by his father and uncle.
His plans include getting “back to the basics,” the repeat throwing — everyday mugs, pitchers and bowls — that drove his father’s studio. Such objects, while practical, offer an antidote to the impersonality of mass-produced goods, Leach said.
“A handmade pot, a handmade mug, is like a friend in the cupboard,” he said.
Leach still lives by his grandfather’s advice — the last given to him.
On Christmas of 1978, months before his death, Bernard Leach took his grandson aside for a few moments.
“He said, ‘Try to look for and combine in your work beauty and functionality,’ ” Leach recalled. “So that is the aim of my work, I would say.
“Because I agree with him: create something that’s not only practical and useful, but also something that’s a joy to hold.”
Send ideas for Good Life stories to Chris Rosenblum at firstname.lastname@example.org.