Thinking about tea and teapots while eating fresh dates

There are so many memories and quotes about tea and teapots.  While living in Britain, I learned that everything is much better with a “warm cuppa.” Even today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, tea can be soothing to the body and soul.

In her book, When Calls the Heart, Janette Oke pondered the idea that a fine china tea set would make life in a log cabin much more civilized when she said, “There seemed to be so many things that I needed, but I held myself in check and purchased only essentials – with the exception of one extravagance. I had determined that I would drink my tea like a lady, even in a log house; so I purchased a teapot and two cups and saucers of fine china. I felt somehow Mama’s mind would be much more at ease about me if she knew that I was having my tea in the proper fashion. After all, civilization could not be too far away from Pine Springs if I had such amenities!”

In Pomegranate Soup, a lovely book that marries Persian cooking with Irish living, the author, Marsha Mehran writes: “There were ceramic teapots in aubergine, mustard, and midnight blue (good for one, sweeter still when shared between two drinkers); and forty small, thin glasses with curved handles, set in gold- and silver-plated holders etched with arabesque swirls. Bahar gingerly lined the tea glasses up on the counter where the cappuccino machine had been stationed. She tucked the teapots into the counter’s glass-panelled belly, where they sat prettily next to twenty glass containers of loose-leaf teas, ranging from bergamot and hibiscus to oolong.”

In The Water Castle, Megan Frazer Blakemore plays with a trunk full of treasures and memories when she describes the moment when the lid was opened. “Ephraim lifted the top of the trunk. Neatly stacked were mementoes from what seemed like hundreds of journeys. Right on top was an etching of the Eiffel tower next to an African mask that looked at him with surprised eyes. He reached in a little deeper and unearthed a small teapot decorated with blue drawings just like the kind his grandmother collected and kept in a locked china cabinet.”

For the first twenty years of my life, I lived in the southern United States. Oklahoma to be exact.  I have no memory of hot tea or teapots even though the china cabinet contained an array of thin, highly decorated teacups.  I recall, as a child, being taken to the window in the dining room and being shown the translucency of the eggshell cups. They were not used for tea but were brought out on exceptional occasions with the coffee service.  Everyone drank iced tea.  If anyone had ordered hot tea at a restaurant, I am not sure the wait staff would have known precisely what to do.  Tea was not hot except for its brewing for iced tea.  There was no flavoured powdered tea.  People in the South are purists.  Teabags were brewed and then water and ice were added, never sugar.  The tea was served in stemmed goblets.  The sugar, if it was used at all, was combined with the help of an extra-long silver spoon and stirred till every last crystal was dissolved.  Some added the juice from a fresh lemon.

It was only as a new immigrant to Canada that the comfort and the Britishness of hot tea and an old Brown Betty pot were appreciated.  The tea that was made was Black and robust, most often requiring milk and sugar to chase away the bitterness.  Hot tea was comforting to hold the cup or mug during the cold of the Manitoba winters, the steam warming your face.  The favourite brand in southern Manitoba was Red Rose.  I was never sure if it was the price, the quality, or the fact that there were often small Wade ceramic figurines tucked inside the boxes for collecting beginning in 1967.

Fast-forward and my life and the world of tea expanded in ways that I could not have dreamed of during those first winters in Canada.  First was the chai simmered in some pretty forlorn tin or aluminium pots on the railway platforms in India.  Delicious and creamy and often made even better with the infusion of cardamon.  In Pakistan, tea was made on the side of the road in brightly painted metal pots while in Beijing, one could sit for hours in the Kempinski Hotel’s tea room sipping jasmine tea made in glass pots.

I am not the only person whose knowledge of tea has changed.  Around the world, there are masters purchasing teas – green, white, Pu’er, Oolong and Black – for our more refined palettes.  Teas are blended in the same way that whiskeys are with the masters identifying the notes in each.  You can take classes on tea.  You can order tea from the tea plantations along with suitable teacups and pots.

Today, I have an extensive collection of handmade teapots.  They range from the most recent, a gift from Grace Han when she was leaving for Vancouver to a lovely lacquer one made by the lacquer master in Bagan, Malaysia brought back by my son.  There are others, tucked away in China cabinets or sitting in my office for students to hold and critique.

 

Top row from left:  Grace Han teapot (2019) made using Korean mould technique (Grace’s rock series); John Reeve temmoku teapot made at Sheridan College, 1976; lacquer tea set made in Bagan, Myanmar. Bottom row from left:  Valerie Metcalfe, Barbara Tipton, and Gunda Stewart.

Each of my teapots holds a special place in my heart because of the memories and the beautiful people who made them.  They are, in fact, more than just vessels for brewing and serving tea.  It is a way of enjoying a quiet or shared moment with an old friend.

As my knowledge of tea has grown, so has my questions about teapots. Indeed, my taste in tea has changed dramatically.  Instead of buying big boxes of 120 teabags of Black tea, I purchase small sealed packets of hand-rolled black teas from Malawi or small-batch silver tip jasmine white tea from Wuyi, China.  Then there are the greens from Uji, Japan and the roasted nuttiness of genmaicha.  Indeed, the only black tea that I drink is Huntington’s hand-rolled from Malawi.  Its sweetness requires no sugar, and while you could steep it so that milk would be required, there is no need unless you walk off and forget it!

All of this brings me to the question of the teapot.  The way that we enjoy tea today has changed from what it was during the war years in Britain or even on the Canadian prairies in the 1970s.  We are more sophisticated in our knowledge of tea while, at the same time, there have been a growing number of companies and shops to cater to us.  Today, I want to see the colour of the tea develop and to watch the leaves unfurl and to do this, I must use a glass pot.  The same is true for any of the flowering silver tip white teas.  I want to see the colour develop along with the unfurling of the leaves.

New revelations on the best temperatures to use to infuse different varieties of tea have resulted in small appliance manufacturers making electric kettles with temperature controls.  Today, it is generally known that one simply does not boil the pot until the whistle is blowing the roof off unless they want their lovely green jasmine tea to be anything bitter.  There is a French tea company, Palais des Thes, that has a marvellous green tea that is mixed with rose and raspberry leaves.  A friend placed the leaves of the Paris for Her tea in a pot and poured boiling water over it and allowed the tea to steep as she would any black tea.  After she was shocked at how bitter the brew was – so upset that she called the North American head office to complain.  In the end, it turned out that instead of 100 degrees C, the tea required 70 degrees C and a very short steep.  To handle this, some tea companies sell only 150 ml and 300 ml teapots so that you are merely making 1 or 2 cups.  No leaves will turn bitter if you check the water temperature required and the length of the steep – generally supplied with the tea.

So what am I going on about????????  Well, like the right temperature of water to infuse the tea leaves, there has to be an equally appropriate teapot for specific teas.  The Chinese make their Yixing teapots out of a beautiful local clay that is sometimes a purple-brown colour when fired.  There is no glaze.  The pot absorbs the flavour of the tea that has been infused after years (assuming the same type of tea is used) until, eventually, less tea is needed.  Glazed clay teapots can be used for any kind of tea but should they?  And should we make such large pots that the tea continues to steep under the cosy becoming more bitter?  So my argument is this:  If you are infusing a standard black or herbal tea, go for the ceramic pot.  But if you are brewing a rare tea whose colour and unfurling is paramount to its appreciation, then you simply must use a small glass pot.

How great was this? Grace Han is my teacher and it is so much fun being a student.

I want to publicly thank Grace Han.  She has helped me immensely as I complete the final preparations for my residency in Scotland.  Gosh, it has been so long since I was a student that it was wonderful learning something entirely new.  Well, I shouldn’t say altogether new.  I did make some very simple moulds so many years ago that I don’t even want to think about it.  It was fun being a student again – energising was a word that Grace used a lot, and I agree.  How fortunate I am.

My interdisciplinary arts project is about transience.  One aspect of it also questions current ceramics education and making and its impact on the environment.  The conceptual basis for the proposal was strong and was a 180-degree turn from my previous practice making functional domestic ware.  I no longer do this.  There are fabulous potters in every province of Canada that make beautiful wheel thrown vessels that enliven my life every day.  I do not need to add to this.  It is time to look at ceramics production differently.

My original intention was to rent a potter’s wheel and make my ovoid bottles, to apply slip capturing the landscape at various times of day, and to place the unfired pieces along the coast of the North Sea, from Arbroath to Aberdeen.  But I could not rent a wheel.  The obvious next step was to make a mould and slip cast the bottles.  It has been some thirty years since I had lessons in mould making and, at the time, the instruction was not that good.  Enter Grace Han.   If you do not know who Grace Han is you can look back through my blogs but in a nutshell:  Grace Han is from Korea where she is one of the only women to make Onngi.  She is so good at mould making also that her professor in Korea always hired her as his assistant because of these talents.   How fortunate I am to have this energetic and highly creative person willingly gave up over six hours of her, time to instruct me in the process and to make sure that the mould I am taking to Scotland is perfect so that my residency is successful.

If anyone reading this thinks mould making is easy, it is not.  Whatever my perceptions were before we started working last night, it was clear after a couple of hours that only individuals with a great deal of patience and attention to detail would be successful.  Like all things with ceramics, you either learn patience or you move on to something else.  It is like the last 150 degrees C in wood firing.  You have to take the time to make sure that you gave it your all and pushed the energy out of those last bits of wood.

A lot of mould making is about precise measurements and bubbles.

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When I was a student at Oklahoma State University, students in the sculpture class were, on the first day, given a 25 lb bag of plaster and a bucket.  No instructions were given, but if the plaster hardened in the pail, you were asked to leave the class.  We all failed that day.  Grace’s taught me the ratio of water to gypsum; how to slowly stir the plaster once it had all settled into the water in order not to create bubbles.  By the time the third batch of plaster was being mixed, I thought I had aced it.  — Believe me when I say that it also helps not to get overconfident!  Grace took the bowl and carefully tapped the sides.  She was smiling.  You would have thought there was a heat vent like those on the floor of the ocean with all the bubbles rising to the surface.  Remember I said:  lots of patience.  The bubbles are scooped out with a big spoon and placed on the top of the glass.  Little by little they disappear.

The other bubbles have to do with the mould soap.  For those of you that do not know, you must apply a substance to keep the plaster from sticking to your original form (unless you are using raw clay).  It was unclear if the mould soap would work on the unglazed part of my bottle.  Three coats worked.  Grace has no special brush for doing this, merely a man’s shaving brush!  Whirling it around until the bubbles form and then they are wiped off.  This time you want those bubbles!

Grace Han looked more than once at the ovoid bottle I wanted to cast.

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In the end, the final mould required as many as five separate pieces with keys to lock them in place.  Grace used some high quality self-supporting flexible plastic sheets that she purchases in Korea to form the sleeve around the form.  IMG_2157

Looking down into the mould, five hours later, there are only two more pieces to cast:  the last one for the main form and the top.  Look carefully, and you can see the keys.

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Once everything is cast, you are left with something that looks like a ridiculous hat or a weird cake with its royal icing sans decorations.  To remove the original form, you have to carefully grate away the plaster until you can find the keys and the sides to each piece of the mould.

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Then with a rubber mallet, you begin tapping.  In the end, we did not need to break the original form.  It came away nicely.  The edges of all of the parts were bevelled so that you can easily take them away or put them together.  Then the whole thing is secured with the largest rubber bands I have seen and allowed to cure.  By the time I leave for Scotland, it will be dry enough for me to make my ovoid bottles.

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I am so very grateful for the kindness and patience that my former student gave to me as her student.  It is the best of all worlds when we can openly learn from one another, sharing ideas and processes without hesitation.  I know that my residency will be much more successful because of Grace Han’s generous giving of her time.  I will miss seeing her on my return.  Grace Han will be doing a six-month residency at Medalta.  She is currently preparing for a group exhibition at the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery in Waterloo, Ontario, a show curated by my colleague, Grace Nickel.  If you live near Waterloo, check out the events on the gallery’s website and go over and have a look at the four or five large onngi that Grace Han has created.

Grace Han is at Ace Art

The work of Grace Han along with eight other Manitoba Association of Women Artists (MAWA) mentees is currently being shown at Ace Art, 290 McDermot Avenue (second floor).

The exhibition is entitled SHIFT.  Collectively it focuses on identity politics, adaptability of identity alongside studies of the self, the body, and the land.  Some of the work deals with the artist attempts to regain that which has been lost through trauma, illness, memory, and lineage.  The works of sculpture, painting, installation, photography, ceramics and performance reflect the diversity of the nine emerging artists in the exhibition, their relationship to their self and to society.

At a distance, Han’s ceramic installation (with video) challenges the viewer to distinguish the shapes forming the Onngi jar.  Moving closer the white porcelain wall pieces appear very feminine, very fragile, almost flowerlike.  Yet, when you are face to face with the wall piece, it is easy to see that the form is made up of large casts of metal nuts, a motif previously utilized, in a smaller scale, by Han in her MFA exhibition installation.  Sometimes associated with DIY or an auto mechanics workshop, nuts are commonly used together with a bolt to hold multiple parts together.  In this instance, they are alone, useless at binding two parts together, an ideal metaphor for the shifting identity of Han, for the loosening up or ‘unbolting’ of her Korean identity after having now been in Canada for some seven years.  Enclosed within the Onggi jar is the short video by the CBC of Han wrenching with her personal identity as a Korean living in Canada.

The Foundation Mentorship Program is one of the most important services that MAWA provides for emerging women artists in our community.  It is an intensive year long partnering with an established artist where the mentees receive critical feedback on their work, help with networking, and an open and safe place to share their ideas.  Each year there is an end exhibition.  Other mentees included in this end of the year exhibition are Susan Aydan-Abbott, Carol-Ann Bohrn, Erin Frances Brown, Amber Christensen, Maya de Forest, Sue Joang, Chris Larsen, and Kathy Levandoski.

If you missed the opening like I did, the exhibition remains open until January 10.  The gallery is open Tuesday-Friday from 12noon to 5pm.

 

 

Give it Up for Joo Young Han, one of the Manitoba Arts Council’s Major Award winners. Well done!

Joo Young (Grace) Han is one of those extremely talented young women, a rising star in Canadian ceramics.  Raised in South Korea, Han graduated with her BFA from Dankook University where she studied traditional Korean ceramics.  There she watched the master potter, Joon Hoon Park, while making hundreds of Korean tea bowls, sambal, a day.  For seven years, Han worked to perfect her ceramic skills including the making of the large jars for fermented vegetables, the Onngi.  In 2011, Han moved to the Canadian prairies.  The image above is a still from an upcoming CBC special on Han.  In 2016, Han graduated with an MFA from the School of Art, University of Manitoba.  There, for two years, she worked tirelessly in her studio asking herself many, many questions.  Am I Korean?  Am I Canadian?  Where is my voice?  Her thesis exhibition focused on those binaries as does the photo above.

The Manitoba Arts Council recognized Han’s artistic excellence by awarding her their major grant of $30,000 this past week.  It is rare for a ceramic artist to achieve such recognition so early in their career.  MAC  not the only one, however!  Han will be part of the Banff’s Centre’s Clay Revival Residency from June 3-July 7 and she will also have a solo exhibition at Medalta.  Well done, Grace.

For a more detailed discussion of Han’s struggle with her identity and the male world of Korean ceramics, see my article in the current issue of New Ceramics, ‘Joo Young Han.  One Path, Two Identities, pp 13-15 (2/18).

You know those days when you feel like you should buy a lottery ticket? Today feels like that for me. I want to share some upcoming events that are so ‘hot’ they don’t have confirmed dates yet.

The first is news of a really big event.  The last two weeks of June, Master Potter Markus Boehm from Germany will be with us.  For years I have been advocating for a wood kiln that was for the students, one that could be fired by a single person achieving the level of ash that would put a smile on your face without using so much wood and without having to be fired for 46 hours.  Well, we are going to build it!  A state of the art smokeless Bourry Box kiln that will reach cone 14 in 14 hours using only two cubic metres of hardwood logs.  Honestly, you can knit a sweater while firing this kiln.  Good for one person, great for a group, too.   I will be putting out the call for 10 workshop participants.    It will be 10 days and will include a firing.  I need individuals who are keen to learn how to put German engineering into wood kiln design and who are not afraid of long days, sweating, learning a heck of a lot, and walking away with some nice wood fired pieces.  Final dates and workshop costs will be forthcoming.

Bob Archambeau has been with the School of Art for 50 Years.  In the late fall, the School of Art Gallery at the University of Manitoba will be holding a retrospective of Archambeau and his work.  I will be curating this special exhibition and will be looking for work of Bob’s dating from 1968 to 2008 as well as historic photographs and great stories about Bob as a teacher and potter to go into the catalogue.  Stay tuned as Paul Hess and I work towards finalizing dates.

Ceramics Club at the University of Manitoba will be holding their spring sale in mid-April.  Watch this site for dates and times.

And two articles of mine were published.  One features Joo Young Han (Grace Han), Onnghi Master and recent MFA graduate from the School and is in the latest edition of New Ceramics (Neue Keramik) and Markus Boehm:  East German Master Potter Adapts to Changes since the fall of the wall in Ceramics:  Art and Perception.  Also, Grace Han will be featured on a short documentary by the CBC.  I will try to get the dates and times it will be shown.  Congratulations Grace!

 

Joo Young Han

 

Joo Young (Grace) Han graduated with a BFA from Dankook University in South Korea, an art faculty that focused on traditional Korean ceramics. It was at Dankook that Han learned by observing the master, Joon Hoon Park, and by throwing hundreds of Korean tea bowls, known as sabal, daily.  Over time, she became proficient in using the Onngi wheel to create the large earthenware vessels used to store water and fermented food such as kimchi.    From 2004-2011 Han continued to perfect her ceramic skills before moving to Canada.  On June 3, 2016, five years after arriving on the Canadian prairies, Han graduated with her MFA.  She struggled throughout her graduate studies to find her own voice, somewhere in the middle of being a traditional Korean potter and a new Canadian studying pottery in a Western tradition.  Today she is one of the rising stars in Canadian ceramics.

Since her graduation she has been a resident at the Medalta potteries, her work has been selected for the International Exhibition at Mashiko and was shown at the First Craft Biennale in Toronto.  She has taught for the School of Art at the University of Manitoba.  Her class on onggi making was a huge success.  Han is spending December 2017 in Korea studying reduction cooling in wood firing.