Tea is not the beverage of choice in America. At best there is one tearoom here for every 200 coffee shops.
In countries such as England, of course, tea is part of the daily repast.
Tea drinking in Asia is a whole different matter.
In his 1906 classic treatise “The Book of Tea,” Okakura Kakuzo theorized that the classical difference between Eastern and Western culture was best summed up by their respective notions of tea.
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“Teaism,” he wrote, “is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. … It is essentially a worship of the imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”
Whether you drink tea or not, the KC Clay Guild’s “Teabowl National 2014” exhibit at Avila University’s Thornhill Gallery should at least make you a lover of teabowls.
This is the fifth time the KC Clay Guild has organized the “Teabowl National,” a juried show of dozens of cups made by ceramists around the United States. The show receives national publicity, and a number of the artists’ teabowls are featured in the magazine Ceramic Monthly.
“We were one of the first ceramic organizations in the country to do this kind of show, and it’s become increasingly well-known,” said Susan Speck, a KC Clay Guild member who organized the event. “This year 125 artists applied and 66 were accepted. There can be several pieces by each artist.”
Delores Fortuna and Bill Farrell, both former faculty members at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ceramics department, were jurors for the show.
“The goal,” Fortuna says, “was to represent as widely as possible different kinds of voices. There are cultural presets the artist can choose to work with or not. We were sensitive to historical interpretations and how artists played with them.
“Some artists are working in a classical manner, and some are pushing boundaries. Works that borrow from Japanese traditions are typically wood-fired and have an informal and spontaneous quality,” Fortuna said, “while those influenced by Taiwanese methods, for example, are more formal. … Teabowl aficionados know that high-walled teabowls are made for drinking tea in the winter, while those that are flatter and shorter are used in the summer.
“It was important for us to acknowledge excellence and innovations and to show that there can be different ways of working that are worthy of being awarded.”
The show includes teabowls by students as well as by artists whose work is considered collectible. In some countries, teabowls by acknowledged masters can start at $20,000 and go up to a million dollars. Prices at the “Teabowl National” are kept very modest, starting at $22, with only a few priced higher than $100.
“We want the show to be affordable, but there is no direct correlation between quality and price,” Fortuna said.
The real fun of the exhibit is seeing the extraordinary diversity possible in the making and designing of one little form. Perfection is the enemy of God, as the saying goes, and the sense of experimentation represented in the objects on view here generates a real sense of exuberance.
The most colorful, over-the-top teabowls in the show are by Melissa Yungbluth, whose work was chosen as first runner-up.
The most physically precious work, in terms of materials, is Barbara Allen’s “Garnet Teabowl With Kintsugui,” which beautifully incorporates gold repair, garnet and shino glaze.
At the opposite end is the somewhat brutish bowl by Andrew McGarva, who created a wood-fired, deliberately lumpish, whitish cup with dark brown spots.
There are very quiet pieces also. Chris Drobnock’s “Guinomi With Sgraffito” piece is muted and poetic, with barely visible multiple layers that include circles and lines.
The tactility of ceramic teabowls is central to their appeal, said Kansas City architect and teabowl collector Steve Abend.
“With a teabowl, you hold in your hands the whole world of ceramic art as well as a cultural symbol,” Abend said. “You can feel the form and its compatibility with the form of your hands; you can see how the outside and inside work together as a sculpture, and you can imagine the mystery of its functional use.”
Linda Lighton, a Kansas City ceramic artist and a 25-year practitioner of the Japanese tea ceremony, said: “The tea ceremony in Japan is a seemingly modest but highly complicated affair. Every single aspect of it is beautiful but contrived. It represents all the arts, nature and morality.”
As Kakuzo stated: “But when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears … we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.”
“KC Clay Guild Teabowl National 2014” continues at the Thornhill Gallery at Avila University, 11901 Wornall Road, through Sept. 19. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday. For information at 816-501-3659 or avila.edu/viscom/gallery.