COLLECTING Tea Pots
by Leslie Ferrin - Ceramics Monthly
For many, the joy of collecting is in the
pursuit, seeing shows, meeting artists, reading and learning about the field,
developing, assembling and displaying their point of view. The resulting
satisfaction of living with a carefully chosen collection is further heightened
by knowing that living artists have been encouraged and supported by the
collector's involvement in the process.
The enthusiastic response to Pinch Pottery's
first group exhibition of tea pots, tea sets and theme-related pieces, has
turned this show into an annual event. Sustained interest gave it momentum to
travel to other galleries in New York; Boston; Las Vegas; Springfield, Illinois
and Kingston, Jamaica.
Why tea pots? Why not other standard ceramic
forms - vases, platters, pitchers or bowls? In part it's because tea pots are
multidimensional objects steeped in world culture and ceramic history. Also, the
form makes its stand at the intersection of the art versus craft debate, probing
limits in both directions, at times simultaneously.
For the potter, making a tea pot provides
complex challenges that are often cited as the most difficult to overcome. As
the various parts (body, lid, handle, spout and foot) are assembled, each maker
must solve technical difficulties while deciding on design, proportion and
decoration. Tea pots are likely to be the objects with which both potters and
clay sculptors demonstrate the heights of their creative and technical skills.
Collectors have responded in kind. As they
have purchased and assembled collections unified by one idea, ceramists have
been encouraged to produce even finer examples. But it has taken more than just
the physical tea pot to encourage this specialized direction in collecting. Many
are first drawn to the form by the philosophy embodied by the cultural concept
In Japan, ceramic vessels necessary for the
tea ceremony are among the most highly revered cultural objects.
In England, tea has had an important role from
international trade to daily social patterns of all classes. The first tea pots
were made as imitations of imported Chinese porcelains and expressed the
interweaving of Western and Eastern aesthetics. At the British Empire's zenith,
afternoon tea was appropriated across the world into the cultures of the British
America's singular relationship with tea is
often traced back to the Boston Tea Party. The relationship of many of today's
ceramic artists with the formal tea pot is equally irreverent to authority.
Currently, tea drinking is making a comeback
in the U.S. - some say Americans are switching from "happy hour" to
"tea time." Excessive social drinking is increasingly frowned upon
and, with executives facing shrinking expense accounts, the "power
lunch" is being replaced by the "power tea." Herbal teas
popularized during the sixties are also gaining acceptance as more people try to
Concurrently, collecting ceramics has gained
legitimacy and the concept of investment buying has been fostered (by galleries
and more recently by auction houses). Interior design has also been a positive
influence on the assembly of collections, as decorating with ceramics has proved
to be a trend. National magazines regularly feature personalities with
interesting collections, and focus on homes that incorporate handmade objects
and commissioned art/craft works. This attention has helped make
"handmade" an important part of contemporary lifestyle and interior
planning for both home and office.
tea pot collections vary in content and can
include antique, folk art and commercially produced ware, as well as studio
work. Limitations, such as price or size, may serve to eliminate some objects
from consideration, yet focus the collection in meaningful ways. Some collectors
choose only a few artists to collect in depth, acquiring a spectrum of an
individual's pots over the years, documenting his/her growth and changes. Others
respond to painted/decorated content or subject matter - humor, narration and
color. There are those who are only interested in artists whose work is
considered more sculptural than functional, and vice versa.
The art of collecting is by nature subjective,
and the subjectiveness of the tea pot is endless. The ultimate tea pot may be
sought but never found.
Leslie Ferrin is cofounder of P!NCH in
Northampton, Massachusetts and Ferrin Gallery of Croton, New York. Since it's
debut in 1979, the annual "Tea Party" show has included works by
ceramists. This article was written for Ceramics Monthly.
The Ubiquitous Tea Pot
by Joyce Lovelace
American Craft Magazine, April/May, 1994
"What would the world do without
tea?" the English essayist Sydney Smith wrote in the early 1800s. The same
question might well apply to the tea pot, for 500 years an object of
fascination, a symbol of ritual and refinement, gentility and warmth.
Now more than ever, this curious composite of
belly, handle, lid and spout is thriving as art medium and collectible, with an
explosion of gallery exhibitions devoted to it. The San Francisco art dealer
Dorothy Weiss, for one, featured a dozen artists in her first tea pot
invitational a few years ago. The show has since doubled in size, and Weiss has
sensed the emergence of an increasing number of collectors whose focus is the tea pot.
The annual "Tea Party" at the Ferrin Gallery in Northampton,
Massachusetts, has grown from a handful of makers in 1979 to around 100 today.
According to owner Leslie Ferrin, who has three tea pot shows scheduled this
year, "eighty percent of my time with collectors is spent on tea pots."
For many other galleries as well, the teapot show has become a perennial client
What is it about the tea pot that we find so
alluring? "The essence varies from person to person. Some have an interest
in the culture of tea, and the tea pot is an icon for that. Or they fall in love
with the vitality and jauntiness of the form," says ceramics gallery owner
Garth Clark, author of The Eccentric tea pot and a collector himself.
"Visually, it's very arresting and interesting. And it's lively - it moves.
It also allows for all kinds of games with anthropomorphism - legs, arms, sexual
organs. Beautifully resolved, it can be the most expressive object a potter can
There's a tea pot to suit every taste and
pocketbook - commercially produce novelties for a few dollars, handmade wares
for hundreds, works by established ceramic artists for thousands, and historical
treasures for up to six figures. Some collectors concentrate on the Western tea
tradition, others on the East. Some favor a genre (Chinese Yixing tea pots, for
example, have their own following). Some collect the accoutrements of tea -
bowls, cups, infusers.
"People are attracted to tea pots because
you can collect all elephant ones, all figurative ones, all pottery ones, all
women artists. And you don't necessarily have to spend allot of money. They're
relatively approachable and affordable," says the Los Angeles businessman
Sonny Kamm, and art collector and former dealer in contemporary glass who, with
his wife Gloria, as amassed over 800 tea pots dating "from 1700 to
yesterday." For Kamm, who doesn't even like tea much, tea pot collecting is
pure enjoyment, done with discernment, but "lightly". He scours flea
markets as well as galleries, appreciates cheap kitsch as much as Meissen:
"We never buy anything just to 'ooh' and 'ahh' over." Their eclectic
approach encompasses everything from object by the cream of artists working with
the form to a Miss Piggy tea pot Kamm keeps in his office ("a
lowlight," he says fondly), from Fiesta ware to fanciful pieces that are
"beyond silly - lions, rabbits, dancing monkeys."
For those whose interest is contemporary
craft, the tea pot offers a way to collect broadly in the field, with
extraordinary variety, and still have what Dorothy Weiss calls "a body of
work that's coherent." Sanford and Diane Besser of Little Rock, Arkansas,
have tea pots by more than 200 American and British ceramists, the earliest from
around 1970 by Robert Brady, the "most interesting" a vision of the
Mad Hatter's tea party by Michael Frimkess, featuring Freud and other offbeat
guests. The couple had already been collecting ceramics for some years when they
bought their first tea pot, by Chris Staley, in 1984. "I assumed most, if
not all, ceramic artists had done one or more," Sanford Besser recalls.
"I became fascinated by the idea of how an individual takes the constants
of handle, spout, lid and body and treats them."
It was the "tremendous breadth of ways to
interpret it" that appealed to Donna and bill Nussbaum of St. Louis, who's
200-plus collection ranges from the classic functional work of Jeff Oestreich to
representational tea pots like a 1950s-syle diner by Jerry Berta and a family of
woodpeckers by Annett Corcoran, to one of chicken wire by Leopold Foulem.
"They can be fun, or serious, or both. The best are seriously fun,"
says Bill Nussbaum. Leslie Ferrin thinks "collectors very much capture
contemporary American craft in this form" because it defies easy
categorization: "A tea pots stands there making this point about itself. It
could be this, it could be that. It's East versus West, function versus
nonfunction, art versus craft."
Peter Shire, the Los Angeles ceramist and
sculptor, once called the tea pot the "Holy Grail of pottery" (lately
he's been making them in steel). "The teapot is the epitome of a potter's
problem, materially, physically and aesthetically," says Tome Turner of
Delaware, Ohio, a studio potter for 32 years. For Turner, who described himself
as "kind of from the old school," the goal is a tea pot that is
"one hundred percent functional," meaning more than just drip-free.
"To me, the greatest function is visual appreciation." His best
customers, he says, are those who have maybe had a ceramics class, who will pick
up a pot, lift the lid, notice the tight fit. "I make very quite pots. You
really have to be looking."
The difference between the "potters'
potters" and those whose intentions are more sculptural sets up "a
healthy dialogue," thinks Dan Anderson of Edwardsville, Illinois, one of
many who fall somewhere in the middle (his architectural tea pots are exhibited
in galleries but "do pour magnificently," he notes proudly). "We
potters always say it really isn't finished until it's used. But when it sells
for four figures, people don't want to use it." Anderson has been acquiring
tea pots for the three decades that he's been making them. "There are so
many opportunities for it to become the individual that makes it," he says.
"Everybody in my collection I know, and most are my fiends. I really see
them in the tea pots in a way that I wouldn't in, say, a cup. And after all,
isn't that what we're doing it for? As an extension of heart, mind and
"For potters, the tea pot is the
point-counterpoint of everything we make. It provides that ultimate challenge,
to really make it work and have a voice," says Michael Sherrill of
Hendersonville, North Carolina, who has used it for "explorations of space,
light and color" for 15 years. "My tea pots are in no way functional.
I'm not interested in whether it pours or not, but does it work visually?"
An admirer of the Shaker aesthetic, he tries to bring the tea pot form to its
essence. "For me, it's not How much junk can I put on it? but What does it
need? It's a process of reduction." He likes its ability to invoke life's
daily rhythms. "Everyone has archetypal associations with the the tea pot.
It doesn't push the viewer away saying, 'This is the holy of holies.' A lot of
what we do in the art world does that."
Such seductiveness leaves plenty of room for
mischief. The tea pot has long been a vehicle for humor, satire and improbable
content, a tradition carried on today by ceramists such as Adrian Saxe of Los
Angeles, whose interpretations have included a demure 19th century maiden with a
huge phallic spout protruding from her petticoats. "The need to categorize
and identify is very strong in our culture," says Saxe, who, "rather
than fit it," tries to "play with people's expectations." His tea pots
are homages to the ideas of ritual, contemplation, protocol and cross-cultural
exchange embodied by the form. They are also wickedly campy spoofs of
preciousness and pretension, of "borrowed prestige, the aspiration to a
gentler life when, for the most part, granny's heirloom tea pot sat on the shelf
and people used teabags." Kurt Weiser of Tempe Arizona, finds the formal
earthbound tea pot effective as "a little stage set" for his exotic
painted scenes of "total fantasy," such as a monkey pouring tea into a
river. Perhaps no artist loads this comfy object with more unsettling imagery
then Richard Notkin of Oregon, whose small, socially conscious tea pots in the
realistic Yixing style depicting such things as a nuclear blast or a human heart
in chains, can be painful to look at.
"I like the tension between the tradition
of the tea pot and its most unlikely interpretations. Notkin's really nailing
it," says Joan Takayama-Ogawa, a Los Angeles ceramist. She, however, makes
unabashedly playful tea pots, as "a form of recreation. They're fun. I use
them as a break. It's a great way to explore form and surface, to pursue subtle,
quiet gestures." Though a tea pot can be a "flippant one-liner,"
she notes, "the elegance holds the humor in check." And like small netsuke,
"it has the potential for monumentality in spirit and form."
The New York sculptor Raymon Elozua
exaggerates the tea pot's scale (and everything else about it) in works like the
The Party's Over, best described as the decaying, chaotic remains of a
monstrous tea pot the size of a washing machine, a lifeless cup dangling at its
core, dripping red. Elozua merrily characterized it as a black-humored take on
"the death of tea pots and the teacup and ceramics and the world as we know
it." Though he believes "function limits vision," he like the tea pot
form for the usual reasons. "One, it's like juggling. You've got all these
elements to play with. Two, it's the most iconic of ceramic symbols. And three,
the sexuality. It's passive -aggressive." His focus is the interior. Taking
the tea pot as "a metaphor for the body, for life," he
"draws" its figure by bending and welding a steel skeleton, then
fleshes out the inside with shards of broken clay tea pots, representing
"remnants of the past," of craftsmanship and what Elozua sees as its
tendency to "fetishize perfection."
While the clay tea pot is being pushed to the
brink of deconstruction, what of the other archetype, the sterling silver tea pot?
If the tea pot is as much the metalsmith's domain, why do relatively few make
them? Harriette Estel Berman, a California metalsmith interested in domestic
iconography (her sculptures refer to irons, toasters and the like), wondered
about this after "watching the tea pot phenomenon for a few years" and
noting that all the action seemed to be in clay (she's never made one herself,
but has studied them extensively). She conducted her own informal survey of the
field, and, at last year's conference of the Society of North American
Goldsmiths, presented her conclusion - that most activity and innovation in
metal is in jewelry, and that "when metalsmiths do turn to the tea pot,
they tend to get very conservative. They get obsessed with function, letting it
dictate design. I thought, 'Come on, people in ceramics gave this up years
ago'," says Berman, who believes "there's a conceptual level that's
not been explored" in metal tea pots, except by a few. "Generally
speaking, clay has left metal way behind in terms of exploration of the tea pot
form," agrees Tom Muir, a metalsmith from Perrysburg, Ohio, who attributes
this to the considerable investment of time, labor, material and technical skill
required to manipulate metal into a complex hollowware form. Muir's own sterling
tea pots, which are non-utilitarian ("but I'm interested in utility"),
are formed and fabricated, with as many as 67 soldered joints.
"Potters can throw a pot in 15
minutes," observes Charles Crowley, a Boston-area metalsmith. Through
spinning and other efficient hollowware techniques, Crowley can approximate a
"potter's approach," work relatively fast, and increase his chances
for that fortuitous mix of "the accidental and the intentional."
Though his tea pots are often sculptural, he finds function hard to ignore.
"It's honest. Customers pay a lot of money. They should be able to use and
clean it." He adds, "When people by silver, they want the thing that
lasts, like their grandmother's." Even the most adventuresome art
collectors, the "really wild guys," want an heirloom, says Crowley,
"something they can engrave and pass on to their children." For the
maker, then, "a lot of the fun materials and colors don't hold up."
Others known for their metal tea pots are
Susan Ewing, Randy Long, Chunghi Choo, Kee Ho Yuen, Nancy Slagle, Robly Glover,
Robert Ferrell and Boris Bally, to name a few. "Most of these metalsmiths
think of the tea pot as sculpture," says Rosanne Raab, a New York City art
consultant who coordinated the traveling exhibit "Silver: New Forms and
Expressions" for Fortunoff. "They're not concerned with making the
equivalent of Gorham, International or George Jensen. It is a vocabulary that is
understood, but they're not competing on that level." At present, the
market for service pieces by studio metalsmiths is generally limited to a
"small collector's circle" and "some private commissions,"
according to Raab. "It's economics, and the fact that people are living a
more casual lifestyle." Nevertheless, she notes, silver retains its special
aura of "prestige, position and family."
"We have an attitude toward silver. Give
anyone ten cents' worth, and the first thing they do is wrap it in a cloth and
put it in a drawer," observes metalsmith Myra Mimlitsch Grey of East
Kingston, New York. Yet a silver presentation piece exists expressly for
conspicuous display, to project an image. "There's an irony to it that I
really enjoy," says Gray, whose conceptual tea pots are wry examinations of
the silver object as a symbol of "bourgeois luxury." In her Encased
series, she replicates "the ideal model" of an austere copper shell so
that only hints of a spout, lid and handle are exposed. The work has a
"feminist angle," an assertion of the tactile (female) over the visual
(male), with overtones of containment and service.
Whether political statement, art object or
cultural icon, the tea pot is here to stay, say its champions. "There's
a long and consistent history of fascination with the tea pot," says
Garth Clark. Even when "the commercial edge has gone off it," he
predicts, the serious collectors will "stick with their obsession." In
Leslie Ferrin's view, "there are pieces out there being made for the
marketplace that don't stand up to the best" - which nevertheless satisfy a
range of tastes and budgets - but "there's not a glut of the best."
And at its best, says Clark, the tea pot is evolving into an "extraordinary
art form," as ceramists' creations become not just increasingly "ceramically
literate" but also "more beautiful, more cunning - and I mean that as
a compliment - more complex and sophisticated. I'd hate to think this is a
golden era, because that tends to signal the end of something. Let's say a
silver period. There's no problem with one metaphor. I don't think the potters
are done with it yet."
"I see tea pots getting more complex in
terms of a grouping or environment," muses Dan Anderson, venturing a look
into the future. After 30 years, the form continues to inspire him. "I
think I can do a lifetime's worth of work. I really do."
A splash of green can help brighten up your
Friday, February 4, 2005
By Carole Schrock Special to the Daily Southtown
When winter steals the green, bring the green
inside. Or so suggest interior decorators, who believe anything from green paint
to green plants to green accents are good reminders of spring.
"I think green is easy to integrate. It's one of those colors that goes
with other colors," said Laura McDowell, national spokeswoman for T.J. Maxx
"It can add warmth to your house. Plus, in cold climates around the
country, such as the Chicago area, people spend a lot more time inside."
Mini-versions of outside foliage can also help.
"People who (buy) house plants during the winter months are tired of the
gloom and doom," said Greg Stack, horticulture educator at the University
of Illinois Extension in Matteson. "So they bring in the green."
Green, like any color, comes in a variety of shades. So, whatever a homeowner's
style, there are tints and hues to enhance most room themes.
According to the colormatters.com Web site, green is an enduring symbol of
It's also the most restful color. People who work in green environments have
fewer stomach aches, and the color is said to soothe teething infants, according
to the site.
T.J. Maxx, like a lot of stores that sell housewares, offers everything from
lime green pillows with polka dots to hunter green ones with gold brocade and
tassels. Bold fluorescent green lamps stand next to smoky green glass ones.
"Whether it's picture frames, teapots, candles, candlesticks, colored
leather or all different fabrics, green seems to be one of the hot colors for
the season," McDowell said.
If green is not desired in a large dose, McDowell recommended using the color to
accessorize. In the kitchen, for example, accent pieces like teapots, table
linens, sugar bowls or water pitchers can add just a dash of green.
"The one thing about decorating with accessories is that you can easily
change them when your tastes change," she said.
"If you buy a giant green chair, you might get sick of it and you're stuck.
But if you get sick of a picture frame, you can put it away for a while and then
take it back out."