Peter Leach, potter and founder of Northern Clay Center, dies at 87

Kavita Kumar, Star Tribune
·3 min read

Peter Leach didn't want his creations hung up on somebody's wall or sitting idle in a bookcase. They were functional and meant to be used.

"These were not trophies," said his longtime friend, Minneapolis architect Dick Gilyard. "This is what you drink out of. It was what you put your flowers in."

Not only did people around the Upper Midwest use his stoneware plates, mugs, bowls and vases, they often did so for decades, making them integral parts of their daily lives.

Leach, a St. Paul potter who also was the visionary and driving force behind the creation of Northern Clay Center, died Jan. 17. He had grappled with Parkinson's disease for several years. He was 87.

Since his death, his wife, Nan Skelton, has been receiving lots of cards and messages from friends and customers over the years.

"There's hardly one that doesn't say, 'I always drink my coffee every morning out of his mug, or we've used his plates and bowls for 30 years,' " she said. "So they were loved. It was good, sturdy stuff. And it was beautiful."

Leach's graceful handles were often particularly admired. So too were his earth-colored — and sometimes blue — glazes.

Over a 40-year career, Leach taught and mentored many students. In the 1980s, he began longing for a regional center where ceramic artists could work, gather, teach, sell and exhibit their items.

He mobilized a group of potters to work on the project. They raised $200,000 and renovated a building on University Avenue in St. Paul. The Northern Clay Center, which later moved to Minneapolis, opened its doors in 1990 with Leach as its first executive director. Today, the nonprofit organization continues to offer classes, studio space and exhibitions dedicated to ceramic arts.

Born in Fort Atkinson, Wis., Leach was the son of an engineer and a librarian. He went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison for a couple of years before taking a job as an auditor for the J.C. Penney Co. That job took him around the country for a few years.

He decided to return to school, this time at the University of Minnesota's architecture school where he took pottery classes from the legendary Minnesota potter Warren MacKenzie. He fell in love with craft, and decided to pursue that instead of architecture.

He and his wife moved to a farm near Cannon Falls where they set up their home and his studio and showroom. In 1972, he started the Sogn Valley Craft Fair at his farm, and began inviting other artists to sell their wares there, too. It became an annual event on the first weekend in October, and it eventually moved to a bigger location.

After he divorced, Leach moved back to the Twin Cities, where he later married Skelton.

Some of his creations — salt and pepper shakers, for example — have been mainstays for years on the counter at Al's Breakfast, the tiny Dinkytown establishment where he was a regular and enjoyed talking to the staff, who all knew him.

"He had this kind of easy smile and laugh," Gilyard said. "He made people feel that they were the most important person in the world. You felt lucky if you were in Peter's circle."

In 2003, Leach retired from pottery. He focused instead on photography. One of his projects, photos of the Japanese garden in Como Park, ended up in an exhibit in Nagasaki. He also wrote a cookbook about one of his other passions — morel mushrooms.

Besides his wife, survivors include his son, Ben Leach, and daughter Julia Leach; stepsons John and David Skelton; and three grandchildren.

His family plans to celebrate his life later this year.