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Steeped in Teapots
I’m the daughter of a Scotswoman. I grew up steeped in tea, secure in the knowledge that no matter how bad things got, a cuppa always made them a wee bit better. I’ll forever associate tea with comfort and fortitude.
Tea, or the idea of tea, stirs emotion, even in those who don’t drink the stuff. It appeals to our romantic notions of refinement and tradition: the centuries-old ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony, the Edwardian fantasy of afternoon tea from a silver service at Downton Abbey. Yet tea belongs to no one culture, class, or generation. There’s a photo I love of the Beatles, taken at some press event around 1964. They’re seated before a low table laden with cut roses and a floral teapot, and they’re primly holding delicate cups and saucers. It’s a charmingly counterintuitive image, considering how profoundly these four young men had just rocked the world. At the same time, it reassures us that some things, like England, will always be.
Teapots, I’d say, are the Beatles of household objects. Okay, bit of a stretch. But think of the similarities: both are wildly appealing and accessible, loaded with personality, expressive, playful, sometimes eccentric and edgy. Here, there and everywhere.
Back in 1994 I wrote an article for American Craft called “The Ubiquitous Teapot” that looked at some of the work being done by craftspeople at the time. Those who made functional wares regarded the design and crafting of an honest teapot–one that looks good and pours well–as a rite of passage, a solemn challenge to be mastered. They approached it as a study in classic form, worked within the prescribed limits of function to achieve transcendent beauty. The more sculptural-minded played jazz, exploring abstraction, whimsy and metaphor–and there certainly were endless ways to do that. Some made mischief with the teapot’s male and female attributes, or went iconoclastic, smashing notions of gentility and utility. It was amazing, the range of creativity–and provocation–that this everyday object inspired.
Nearly two decades later, craftspeople aren’t remotely done with the teapot, nor has interest in the form waned. “If anything, it’s grown,” says Amy Morgan, owner of Morgan Contemporary Glass Gallery in Pittsburgh, PA, where “Teapots 6” (through June 2) offers a lively survey of current interpretations in all media by 59 makers. Morgan launched the annual show in 2006 at the suggestion of her close friend and fellow gallerist Jan Peters of Del Mano Gallery in Los Angeles (who, sadly, passed away last December).
“Jan said to me, ‘Why don’t you do a teapot show? There aren’t many glass teapots, and I think you’d enjoy it. You’d make new collectors, and you’d really have a good time,’” recalls Morgan, who wasn’t sure at first. “I thought, it’s not what I do. I do sculpture and jewelry, and a pretty good goblet business.” But she decided to give it a go. Her first teapot show was all glass. It went well, considering teapots weren’t really a glass thing. “It was not a form dear to the hearts of artists working in glass. For them, the equivalent is probably the goblet, which has some of the same metaphorical issues. You know–goblet, teapot, not so dissimilar.”
Sensing an opportunity to attract a new audience, Morgan branched out the following year, inviting artists in various media to create pieces for the show. “I began to think about who could make a teapot. Which was not necessarily the same as who would make a teapot.” Since then she’s built a good-sized pool of participants, adding new names each year. “I do ask the artists, especially those who aren’t teapot makers, to reference their body of work, so that it’s recognizable and appealing to collectors,” she says. Her aim is variety for her customers. “There’s something for everybody. I really try and see to that. And there’s a very wide price point range.”
This year, there’s the expected virtuosity in clay. Meryl Ruth has great fun with the teapot, imagining it as a cable-knit sweater, a pug in a pocketbook, a steampunk alarm clock. The richly patterned Big Tree Teapot by Thomas Hubert combines a ceramic body with a stained-wood handle and legs, in what Morgan calls “a tour de force, a beautiful marriage of two media.” Judy Geerts exploits the teapot’s human quality in Gesture II, a willowy female form with a colorful, flowing raku skirt.
Some of the most delightful surprises came from artists who’d never made a teapot before. Did Leonardo of Pisa Drink Tea? is the intriguing title of one made of Czech glass beads by Tristyn Albright, whom Morgan invited after seeing her work at an ACC craft fair. Then there’s Teapot for a pisciavore by Giampaolo Amuroso, a Belgian glass artist known for “these wonderful figurative, kind of clownlike sculptures. I decided in my head that he could make a wonderful teapot, and he did–it’s perfect.” Ron Layport, a maker of wood vessels, “really went with” the challenge in his elaborately turned and sculpted Big Ol’ Red Bird Teapot and Goat’s Head Tea.
“It was exciting, because it was out of my norm,” Jennifer Umphress says of the two fantastical teapots she made in cast and flameworked glass: Under the Tea, featuring her signature marine imagery (sea anemones, tubeworm, tentacles), and Spring Fling, a lighthearted take on the season, complete with duck feet. “I like the idea of taking such a common object and seeing how everybody transforms it. It can go so many different ways.”
For some, Morgan’s nudge has opened up a new direction. “I’m a vessel maker, but I’d never made a teapot,” says felt artist Pamela MacGregor, even though she happens to collect them. “When I asked Pamela, she thought I was stark raving mad,” Morgan recalls. “I said, ‘No, no, no, you can do this.’” Now MacGregor loves exploring the form in felt, and has even begun teaching a class in it. Function is important to her, even if only in theory. “My teapots, if they were metal or glass, would actually be functional. It’s an engineering challenge that intrigues me.”
Glen Gardner, a blacksmith known for his sculptural weathervanes, had been on hiatus from his craft for a few years–first because of a fire in his studio, and then because he took a stimulating new job with a 3D printing company. “When Amy invited me to be in the show, I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ I found myself lost at the bench in my shop again. It was a kick in the butt that I really needed, and it was really nice.” His Steeltown Kettle is an architectural homage to the steel mills and bridges of Pittsburgh. “For years, I’d been wanting to do a body of work influenced by that kind of industrial aesthetic.”
One time Morgan tried a theme for the show–“Steeped in Thought,” during election season in 2008. “I asked people to comment on the current narratives in politics, the environment and society. That was very interesting. It was a little limiting, but I have to tell you, it was a knockout. Of course there were elephants and donkeys galore. But then there was a fellow who used material from a shipping crate, with a teapot on top of that, and it was a whole comment on exporting manufacture, really interesting.”
Still, for Morgan’s customers, just the teapot itself is enough of a rich, diverse theme. “People are beginning to look forward to the show each year, which is lovely. It’s what every gallery hopes for.” Stop by if you’re in Pittsburgh, or download a “Teapots 6” catalog.
Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor.