On January 14th, I attended an artist talk and roundtable discussion at ArtXchange Gallery for the Tea Library: Part III installation which ran December 1, 2016 through January 21, 2017. This was a collaboration between Seattle-based sculptor, ceramicist, and engineer Christopher Shaw and New York-based visual and performance artist Red Square (Guitian Li De Osu).
Local tea personalities Glen Bowers (Crimson Lotus Tea), Dawa Lamu (Crimson Lotus Tea), Shiuwen Tai (Floating Leaves Tea), and Cinnabar Wright (Gongfu Girl, Phoenix Tea) were in attendance to take part in the roundtable discussion centered on contemporary tea issues. Teaware by local artisans Richard Brandt and Crimson Lotus Tea were also on display and tea was prepared and served using Smacha auto brewers throughout the event.
Red Square Talk & Q&A [video chat]
This exhibit was Christopher and Red Square's second collaboration in the Tea Library Series. They met through tea and Red Square described her first impression of Christopher and his art as "quiet, simple, and elegant." Red Square described his work in Tea Library Part II as "arriving in a tea garden in Seattle".
Red Square explains her work, Neoillusion Teaism, as taking what you have to express the heart's feeling. Each movement in calligraphy, dance, and tea is an expression of the moment and an expression of the end. "Dance with your heart around tea, around art." Red Square describes her dance as letting go with no attachment. Her calligraphy has no squares or circles and her poems are how she felt in the moment. Torn paper describes the energy of the moment.
Christopher Shaw Talk & Q&A
Christopher has been working with clay since he was 14 years old. He began drinking tea in his late teens and later, through visits to Teahouse Kuan Yin, he was introduced to Ali Shan Jin Xuan (Milk Oolong). When Christopher talks about tea, he's specifically talking about Chinese and Taiwanese gongfu. He came to teaware through a visit to Seattle Best Tea where he noted the contrast between the smooth stainless insert in the tea table and the organic cups. He began making teaware because "you make what you use". His favorite artists are collaborators and he believes that what we do and what we achieve should be for others.
Christopher is a self-described tea modernist. "Aesthetic is the DNA to culture", therefore aesthetic communication is important. Tea, chocolate, and coffee are all consumable products providing an aesthetic experience. He described a tea room that recently opened in Tokyo offering hand-dripped tea similar to Smacha's auto brewer as an evolution of tea culture. The goal is to create a space where this type of change and evolution can fluorish.
In 2011, Christopher's work was featured in the Infusions Teaware Exhibit at Slab Art Studio where 10 original contemporary Northwest tea sets were paired with tea tables. Richard Brandt, Shiuwen Tai, and Cinnabar Wright also took part in the exhibit.
Tea Library Part II was a 2013 collaborative installation at Seattle Design Center. Christopher took the aesthetic experience of tea inside the body and made it explicit, creating large tapestries infused with concentrations of tea which he then texturized with the final product being an aromatic work.
Tea Library Part III focuses on the physical features of tea and clay. Some teaware in the installation was made from local clay. Different types of tea were easier to form than others with big leaf Taiwanese oolong being easiest and black tea being the most difficult.
Roundtable Discussion & Q&A (moderated by Lauren Davis (ArtXchange)
Personal Tea Practice?
Cinnabar: Explore all elements of tea, science, art, technique, and variances in cultures. How do we marry these traditions to contemporary art?
Shiuwen: She visited a Dong Ding Mountain farmer who said "When you drink tea, can you tell when it's good or bad?" This became the focus of her tea journey. Can she taste better and better tea each day? She sees herself as a link with the tea creator and emphasizes appreciation of the beauty of the maker.
Christopher: Tea is a laboratory in tandem with hisstudio. He plays with aesthetics as an extension of intellectual practice.
Glen: There are three parts to his tea practice. 1) Artistic Side - In Yunnan, the daily focus is on trying new teas, visiting farmers, bringing the tea back to Kunming and then back to the States. 2) Analytical - How does storing and aging affect the tea. 3) Tea Tastings - Educational.
Lamu: Tea is not a practice. It's an essential part of life.
How does tea come to us, globally and personally? Who is involved? How do we fit into the global industry?
Glen: There are 55 natural ethnic minorities among the 2 billion people living in Yunnan and all are tea producers. Each tea producing mountain is isolated, most don't speak Chinese, and they don't know how others make tea. Some still use mules to carry tea to market.
Christopher: As an artist there's an aesthetic genesis where political becomes economic. Purveyors' sourcing is dissecting and making it more honest. It's how we're deconstructing mechanisms of supply and modifying them.
Shiuwen: Go to the region to see how tea is grown. Otherwise, something is missing. The Northwest, Seattle, and San Francisco have beautiful tea culture. Do we sell tea that Americans want to drink? No. It's a revolution. What's the percentage of people focused on tea quality? Very little, unlike in Taiwan where even auto shops have gongfu tables. How do we push forward and connect to people?
Cinnabar: A large part of what we do is educate about tea. They're not trying to become mass market. They're too specialized, focusing on individual and hand-crafted teas. Tea is a conduit between sellers, producers, consumers, and teaware makers. It's a marriage of tradition with new, radical ideas.
How is tea changing and how do we want it to change? What new things are happening?
Cinnabar: Kenya and Nepal are changing with small farms taking tea to the factory. Taiwan has never been problematic. The key for artists making teaware is that they have to be tea drinkers or they won't make something that works well. Collaboration is also important. Crimson Lotus collaborated with a local artist to make their labels.
Shiuwen: We're seeing more and more interest in good tea in America. Others are trying to turn it into a huge commercial thing. Just put water on tea.
Christopher: Everyone here contributes to tea culture.
Shiuwen: She's working on a tea documentary in Taiwan, specifically Dong Ding Mountain tea. She will interview producers, tea makers, and tea farmers. Josh Knapp will be the videographer. They're raising funds now and they'll be going no matter how much is raised for two weeks in early July, shooting footage, seeing the land, and seeing the people.
Cinnabar: Fundraising can be in-person and through direct contribution.
Christopher: What's the takeaway from the finished work?
Shiuwen: It's not about tea knowledge. There are two parts: 1) Interview farmers about what has changed and why. 2) Their life work and what is behind what they do.
Glen: Puerh has been in China for 1500 years, primarily as an export. Now it's becoming popular and a point of Yunnan pride. Commercialization makes people aware that there's a level above Teavana.
How is tea culture practiced or developing in Seattle?
Lamu: A lot of their online customers are in college and 1/5 are under the age of 20. They do tea tastings over Skype. Seattle is big on coffee. Glen was strictly a coffee drinker before becoming a tea drinker, so the focus is finding people like Glen.
Christopher: The soil is fertile here for caffeine. NW Tea Festival is one of the reasons we have a strong tea culture here.
Shiuwen: The nerdy Portland and Seattle people here are open to wanting to learn more and more.
Glen: Fascination with complexity is common among nerds. Tea is incredibly complex.
Shiuwen: Tea will feed the nerdy part of the Northwest while also introducing philosophy and balance with the simplicity of tea.
Cinnabar: It appeals to the nerdy. Those same minds are also looking for something more simple and straightforward. There are a wide array of tea personalities. Generally, tea people have healthy interaction which is especially true here in the Northwest where we're able to collaborate.
How did you get interested in tea?
Cinnabar: Bringing tea together from different origins while connecting through other people, paying attention, and having conversations.
How does differences in teapot clay firing affect the taste of tea?
Christopher: The residue of oils soak into unglazed teaware over time, creating a rounder body. Unglazed or glass teapots tend to produce stronger and sweeter tea.
Cinnabar: Iron rich clays are used for most high-end teapots.
Glen: Silver has an electrochemical reaction.