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Pottery for produce  

  • Emmett Leader makes pots for sale at Northampton’s Tuesday Farmers Market. The clay he uses came from the 2011 construction site of the city’s police station.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nate Brody watches as Emmett Leader makes pots at the Northampton’s Tuesday Farmers Market.  —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bowls made by Emmett Leader for sale at the Tuesday Farmers Market. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emmett Leader at the Tuesday Farmers Market in Northampton, where he donates all sales of his handmade bowls for a food-assistance program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emmett Leader chats with visitors at Northampton’s Tuesday Framers Market. He says the interaction with people at the market is one of the highlights of his day. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The clay Emmett Leader uses for the bowls he sells at Northampton’s Tuesday Farmers Market comes from the 2011 construction site of the city’s police station. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nate Brody watches as Emmett Leader makes bowls at the Tuesday Farmers Market. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emmett Leader holds a piece of clay dug locally he is using to make pots and sell them at the Tuesday farmers market. All of the proceeds Leader will donate to the SNAP program. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Thursday, October 05, 2017

About six years ago, Emmett Leader passed by the construction site for the new Northampton police station, and he noticed a line of trucks hauling away some good raw material: clay.

The Northampton potter and wood sculptor decided he’d see if he could buy some of that clay for himself.  

“I wanted it even if I didn’t have any specific idea for how I’d use it,” Leader, 63, said in a recent interview at his home. “I didn’t know how it would unfold … but my thought was ‘It’s from here, and we’re from here, and that’s a context and connection that feels important.’ ” 

Over the last few weeks, Leader has found a very specific use for some of the local clay, one that builds on the idea of community connection. He has been making a variety of ceramic bowls and selling them at the Tuesday Farmers Market in Northampton — and he’s donating all the money from sales to a program that Grow Food Northampton, the local sustainable food organization, runs for low-income families.

Those sales — Leader said he had sold over $1,600 worth of bowls over the last two weeks of September — go to Grow Food Northampton’s SNAP Matching program. The program provides additional funding for people who are part of the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so that they can buy produce at the Tuesday Farmers Market, which is also run by Grow Food Northampton.

“It’s a good arrangement,” said Leader. “People get a debit card for SNAP that they can swipe at the Tuesday Market, and it gives them additional credit to use there. It’s a good incentive to get people to come to the market, because food at [supermarkets] is cheaper, but here it’s all fresh and local.”

He says he can appreciate the difficulties people may face when they seek assistance for food and other materials. When he was growing up in Northampton and in Vermont, his family got supplemental food at one point, and he recalls “there was this feeling of shame and embarrassment associated with it.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, he adds, and in fact the conversations he has had with people at the Farmers Market — he has brought his potter’s wheel there to make more bowls as customers watch — have revolved around interesting questions about food, such as why it isn’t distributed more equally, and issues like income equality.

He chatted with a Smith College student, for instance, who told him she’d been part of the federal Upward Bound program, which helps students from low-income families prepare for college. “She had no shame, no hesitation in talking about it. She was very open about it — she wasn’t controlled by it. That kind of interaction makes what I’m doing seem really worthwhile.”

He had originally arranged with Grow Food Northampton to donate 40 percent of his sales to the organization’s SNAP Matching program. But in looking more closely at the idea of making bowls from local clay and building on that community connection, he decided to donate all his proceeds.

“I want to go there for four Tuesdays, have a really good time, meet people and feel good about whatever happens,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve spent a fair amount of time and money to do this, but at this point in my life, it works for me.”

Identity and place

It’s not the first project Leader, who also does carpentry and construction, has developed from the clay he bought — about 100 tons — from the police station construction site. About three and a half years ago, he made 100 bowls that were sold for $100 each for a fundraiser for Abundance Farm, a collaborative agricultural project initiated by Congregation B’nai Israel, Lander-Grinspoon Academy and the Northampton Survival Center.

The small farm, located next to the congregation’s synagogue on Prospect Street, includes fruit trees, berry bushes and a vegetable garden; produce grown there is donated to the Survival Center, which is right next door.

The bowls that Leader made for Congregation B’nai Israel, where he is a member, were tied to the idea of making them with the clay he had secured from the local construction site, he notes: “I would not have conceived of that project without having that clay.” 

He notes that he has occasionally dug clay from natural sites like river beds, but that most of his material typically has come from ceramic supply stores. But the Northampton clay he’d secured, he noted, “just lent itself to a different kind of project.”

In a sense, the bowls he made for Abundance Farm were also an extension of work he was very invested in for about 20 years: making “ritual” objects, from both clay and wood, that were inspired by photos of Eastern European Jewish communities from before World War II. The old-fashioned synagogues, or shuls, and the intricate carvings on graves in old cemeteries that he saw in those images were particularly appealing, he says.

“I  liked the paintings, the folk art, and Hebrew text that were used to make this kind of plain architecture [in synagogues] very decorative, very special,” he said. “I felt really drawn to doing work about identity and place.”

He concentrated especially on making elaborate ceramic Tzedakah boxes — Tzedakah means “justice” in Hebrew — which are used in synagogues to collect money for charity, while smaller versions for people’s homes are more ornamental.

“I’ve probably made hundreds of them,” he said with a laugh, including one that’s just past the entrance to Congregation B’nai Israel.

Though he’s since largely moved on from those projects, the bowls he’s made recently — they sell for anywhere from $20 from small ones to $130 for the largest version — for the Tuesday Farmers Market are also, in their way, about identity and place, he notes.

“They have a specific story, based on where the clay comes from, what the project involves, where the money goes ... I think it’s different than just getting a bowl from, say, a craft fair. I have these interactions with people when they buy the bowls, I get to hear their stories, and they get to hear a few of mine if they’re interested.”

He has made more than 200 so far and figures he’ll end up fashioning about 250 altogether.

And when he wraps up his gig at the Tuesday Market on Oct. 10, he said, “I want to leave with no bowls.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Grow Food Northampton’s Tuesday Farmers Market takes place 1:30-6:30 p.m. next to the Northampton Parking Garage. The market runs through November 7.

Emmett Leader’s website is emmettleader.com.