Refined in the fire: Leisa Crossley starts a pottery business after battling cancer

By Mackenzee Simms. Photos by Jeremy Raines.

It’s a Thursday afternoon in the newly annexed Forest Lake neighborhood. Verdant branches sway overhead as cars amble down the one lane road, pulling in to the looping driveway.

One by one, women emerge from their cars, smocks thrown over their shoulders, as they push open the screen door at the side of the house. Inside, they are greeted by some familiar faces.

Sandra Williamson sits at the table, staring down at an unmolded slab of clay, pondering the best way to attach handles to a tray. Rita Wright crafts teeny tiny cross charms for her niece and says something that makes Darlene Robins laugh as she cranks the slab roller.

Shelves surround them, displaying the various stages of the pottery process from damp bowls fresh off the wheel to glazed and fired works of art. Sponges and carving tools litter the table, while every imaginable kind of stencil hangs on the wall.

And, at the center of it all, sits potter Leisa Crossley.

DIAGNOSES AND DISCOVERY

Pottery is a recent passion of Leisa’s.

Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in January of 2020, Leisa underwent the first rounds of radiation during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Cooped up at home and unable to return to her sales job because of quarantine, Leisa battled the uncertainty of cancer in unprecedented times.

“Once you have cancer, there’s always that voice in the back of your head. Is it going to come back? Is it going to be something else?” Leisa said. “And COVID was something we had never gone through before. All of us went through it, and we’d never experienced anything like that.”

During the empty days of quarantine, Leisa found herself thinking about a friend that taught pottery classes. A quick phone call and a short drive later, she showed up at her friend’s door for pottery sessions lasting from 9 a.m. to noon.

“When I would go to pottery, pottery was my refuge,” Leisa said. “It was the place that I could walk in, and for three hours, I thought about nothing but that piece of clay that was in front of me.”

Soon, 9 a.m. to noon classes weren’t enough. Around the end of the sessions, the instructor would approach Leisa, who was engrossed in her work, and inform her that she could stay for a second class if she wanted. With a phone call to her husband, Donald, telling him not to wait up, Leisa would dedicate entire days to pottery.

“I would sit there from nine o’clock in the morning to four in the afternoon, except for 10 minutes for a sandwich at lunchtime,” Leisa said. “I would do pottery all day long and it just kept me sane.”

BUILDING A STUDIO

Leisa had discovered a new passion and wanted to pursue it wholeheartedly, so she went to her husband to discuss building a pottery studio in the garage. According to her, Donald can do everything he puts his mind to including woodworking, maintenance and even constructing their home.

“He can do anything. His dad had all boys and taught them how to do everything,” Leisa said. “I tell my children, if something happens to me, Daddy will be married again in six months. If something happens to Daddy, I guess I’m gonna have to get married because I won’t have anybody to do things.”

The couple agreed to pray about the pottery studio project. In the meantime, Leisa cleared a side of the garage in hopes that her pottery studio dream would be fulfilled, while Donald constructed a wall separating the space from the rest of the garage.

The first item on the wish list was a pottery wheel, which Leisa bought used from a retiring teacher that didn’t want it anymore.

Second, the studio needed a slab roller, a piece of pottery equipment that rolls even sheets of clay. The resulting slabs are perfect for hand building pottery. The problem? Studio slab rollers can cost nearly $1,000.

“When I told (Donald) how expensive slab rollers were, he said, ‘Can I make it?’” Leisa shared. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know. Let me show you what I need.’”

With planks of wood and an ingenious cable pully system, Donald was able to create a homemade slab roller, perfect for Leisa’s growing studio. The thickness of the clay slab can be adjusted by adding or removing wood planks from the table. And if the cables ever need tightening, Donald is just up the stairs.

“It’s so simple and quick,” Leisa said. “Again, I’d say I wouldn’t have this if it wasn’t for him. Because he just went ‘Okay, here’s what I’m going to do.’ And he made it.”

After the pottery wheel and the slab roller, the studio just kept growing. Leisa needed shelves to dry the wet clay once it had been molded. Next, she needed a sink to wash her hands that had a system to collect the clay sediment which would otherwise clog the pipes. Bit by bit, the two found solutions to these problems.

“Everything just kind of fell into place,” Leisa said. “And it felt right. You know what I mean? When you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you can just feel it and you know it’s right.”

The last piece they needed to complete the studio was the biggest and most expensive of all: the kiln.

TRIAL BY FIRE

A kiln is the pottery equivalent of an oven. Pottery is loaded inside and heated. Through the firing process, the clay pieces transform into ceramics. Humans have been using kilns for thousands of years, but the modern equivalents found in pottery studios like Leisa’s can cost upwards of $4,000.

“I didn’t have $4,000, so we kept looking.” Leisa said.

Donald and Leisa began to scour the internet and Facebook Marketplace for affordable used kilns. And while there were listings, none of them fit the Crossley’s needs.

“This was the only thing that we hadn’t prayed about. We needed to pray over this again, so we did,” Leisa said. “In about two or three weeks, one popped up on Marketplace. It was brand new. She had never used it and she wanted less than half price for it.”

Even at half-price, the kiln was outside of their budget. Leisa made an even lower offer to the seller and was shocked when she agreed on one condition; Leisa had to pick up the kiln from Lynn Haven, Florida, north of Panama City.

Leisa called Donald at work and told him to get home immediately.

“He flew home he didn’t know what was wrong,” Leisa said. “ I told (him we had) to go pick this kiln up and it’s nearly in Panama City. And he went, ‘Are you serious?’”

The couple arrived in Lynn Haven that night around 7 p.m. and loaded the kiln into the car. As they were loading it, Leisa noticed a quirk about the piece of equipment.

There are two main types of kilns, one phase and three phase. One phase kilns are for home and personal use, while three phase kilns are used in commercial businesses and universities. Three phase kilns require so much voltage that most home circuits simply can’t support them.

As the Crossley’s loaded the kiln they drove all the way to Florida to pick up, Leisa looked at it and noticed the problem—it was a three phase kiln.

Leisa knew she had to tell Donald, but decided to wait until they were about 25 miles into the return trip before she mentioned anything.

“I waited until we got far enough away and said, ‘I need to tell you something. It’s a three phase.’” Leisa said. “’ Now, calm down. You know how to do electrical (work). You can convert it to a single phase.’”

According to Leisa, Donald spent the rest of the ride home convincing himself that he could convert the kiln from a three phase to a single phase. And after contacting a few people in the industry, Donald did exactly that.

“He converted the kiln, he hardwired into my box, and I had a brand new kiln for a fraction of the cost,” Leisa said. “If that’s not a God thing, I don’t know what it is.”

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

When Leisa and Donald originally built the studio, she never imagined her personal project growing to what it is today—weekly classes and a fully-fledged pottery business called A Bit of Honey.

“I didn’t have any intention of starting a business,” Leisa said. “At 62, I was ready to gear down and spend time more time with the grandkids. God just laid it in my lap.”

Leisa starting making pottery and selling her pieces at local craft fairs such as the Helena High School Spring Market and Buck Creek Festival. As she worked, Leisa would invite her friend, Darlene, over to “play” in the studio.

It was Darlene that first suggested that Leisa start teaching classes. Leisa—who claims she always wanted to be a school teacher growing up, but missed that calling—was unsure at first. What if she couldn’t do it? What if no one came?

To gauge interest in potential classes, Leisa threw out the idea during a bible study at church. Of the 16 women that were there, three of them immediately asked when she was going to start

 

CANCER VISITS AGAIN

With people interested in classes, Leisa began to seriously consider the idea, but the plan was upended when Leisa was diagnosed with cancer for a second time.

In 2020, Leisa’s dermatologist was only taking emergency visits in compliance with quarantine restrictions. Because of this, Leisa was unable to attend her skin check appointment. When she was finally able to be seen in August of 2021, a routine appointment revealed melanoma on her scalp.

At 65 years old, Leisa had two different kinds of cancer in two years. This time, Leisa was determined to not let cancer keep her from living her life.

“Every morning, I wake up and think cancer may take my life, Lord, but it is not today, so I just go about my business and do what I need to do,” Leisa said.

Despite her second diagnosis, Leisa decided to continue to move forward with teaching classes as she had planned.

“I have a personal thing that comes from my dad,” Leisa said. “My dad was not a perfect man because none of us are perfect, but he said that if you say you are going to do something, you should do it.”

 

CLASS IS IN SESSION

Leisa began to host classes in her basement studio with sessions every Thursday 9 a.m. to noon and 1-4 p.m. For people that cannot attend during weekdays, there are classes in the same time frame two Saturdays each month.

Some students, such as Rita Wright, enjoy the ambiance of the classes.

“It’s like being around your mother, your sister and your friend,” Wright said. “She’s just the kind of person that you want to be around.”

While other students, like Sandra Williamson, view pottery as the perfect place to relax under Leisa’s tutelage.

“She’s just a great teacher,” Williamson said. “She’s knowledgeable in what she does. You feel relaxed doing it.”

Student Darlene Robins also loves Leisa as a teacher. Darlene shared that she tried other pottery classes, but none really worked for her and she felt defeated until she came to Leisa.

“I like it because I never thought I could do anything or make anything like this,” Robins said. “I’m not creative. I’m not artsy. I’ve gotten more out of (Leisa’s) classes than a year anywhere else.”

 

ALL ACCORDING TO PLAN

Leisa’s classes can vary wildly in attendance. Some Saturday classes so packed that Leisa has to bring in extra chairs.  Some Thursday classes are completely empty and she sits and works alone in her studio. But no matter how many people show up, Leisa always sticks to her schedule.

“If I say I’m going to be here, I’m going to be here because people ought to be able to be depend on (others),” Leisa said. “I teach pottery. People depend on me to be there. I’m going to be there.”

This dependability has also resulted in several unexpected days. Leisa shared a story of a woman who arrived to class to discover that she was the only student that day. Her husband had recently recovered from an illness that could have become very serious.

“She unpacked all that yesterday while we sat here and talked. It was just her yesterday, but there was a reason for her to be here. She needed that,” Leisa said. “You never know when that’s going to happen.”

On another day, a class of around five students were engaged in their work when one woman randomly burst into tears. As a group, they class gathered around her to offer support.

“You’ve got four or five women standing over them, praying,” Leisa said. “They don’t even know what’s wrong, but they don’t ask. They don’t have to.”

Leisa believes that special moments like these are proof the God makes everything happen for a reason.

“I could have died from cancer years ago,” Leisa said. “I wouldn’t be here if He didn’t have a purpose for us, and maybe that purpose is just to be right here. You’re the most refined in the fire.”

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