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Teapots: Functional, Formal, Narrative
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Teapots: Functional, Formal, Narrative

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Ruminations on the Teapot

Margaret Bohls
Curator: "Teapots: Functional, Formal, Narrative"
February 2009

The teapot is, arguably, the most visually and culturally loaded pottery form. Trade, fashion, social class, nationalism, and industry, have all contributed to the layers of cultural and historical meaning inherent to this particular cultural artifact. 
Being at the same time an aesthetic object and a utilitarian object, the teapot also carries all of the potential and all of the contradictions inherent in the field of contemporary ceramics.  

The western history of the teapot begins with European trade with China via the Silk Road, 17th and 18th century Orientalism, and the craze for the exotic embodied by both tea and porcelain coming from the east. The English in particular took this very foreign utensil and practice and made it their own. Tea drinking and its accoutrements were inextricably tied up with wealth and class. It went from being a stylish and very elitist fashion, to become an institution in English culture. When the Industrial Revolution began changing and blurring the lines between the classes, the teapot found a whole new market in the growing middle class and in the nouveau riche. This opening up of social boundaries and the development of new manufacturing processes was also an opening up of vast new possibilities for the teapot form itself which had by then become the quintessential symbol of prosperity and of culture.

We Americans had a love/hate relationship with that culture. Remember the Boston Tea Party? Our rejection of tea became a symbol of our rejection of England’s dominance over us; a very protestant rejection of our classist, and hedonistic forbears. Even now, we are really a nation of coffee drinkers. However, we have, over the ensuing years, maintained a prurient romance with the pleasures and beauties of England and of English culture.

In the mid 20th c. American ceramists had our own romance with the East, particularly with Japan, and with the Zen aesthetic. The Japanese tea ceremony, a practice with aesthetics at its core, revived our waning interest in the teapot. Like the English before us, we romanticized and then co-opted this “Zen” aesthetic, which, because it is based on “mingei” or “folk” art, tugs at our American proletariat hearts.

As the field of ceramics has developed through the modern, and then the post-modern era, the teapot has remained the quintessential ceramic form. This is perhaps because it provides so many possible avenues of exploration.

One can approach the teapot as a formal aesthetic challenge, as did many Modernist potters and designers. It is a great and beloved formal challenge for the potter to arrange and balance all of the many complex parts of the teapot: volume, lid, handle, spout. Like the bottles, inkwells and boxes arranged in a Morandi still life, or the fields of color so carefully arranged and juxtaposed in an Albers or a Rothko painting, potters arrange and rearrange the parts of a teapot to find and challenge formal balance, question scale, and create flowing or architectural lines in space. The pots made by Sam Chung, Christa Assad and Mark Digeros in this exhibition are good examples of this kind of formal balance and tension.  This very modernist practice is belied by the undeniably utilitarian as well as culture-rich nature of the teapot form itself. It is this seeming contradiction, this dual nature of the form that is so alluring to many of us.  

One can alternately approach the teapot as an interactive physical experience. The teapot, after all, has a layered relationship to the body. We see it as a body itself, calling its parts the belly, the neck, the mouth, the ear. The use of it is a physical experience of its texture, its weight and its balance. Even in teapots not explicitly intended for use, like those in this exhibition made by Bonnie Seeman and Ovidio Giberga, physical interaction with the object is implied and imagined.

One of the primary functions of ceramic objects throughout history has been to tell a story. Think of the Greek Amphora or pre-Columbian vessels from West Mexico or the Moche people of Peru. Funerary vessels in particular were often made to capture stories; the stories of the living to go with the dead into the other world, or the metaphorical stories of the other world itself.  These symbolic narratives act as reminders to us. They instigate memories of our own personal narratives and metaphors and they enhance the connections between the personal or the everyday, and the universal.  The contemporary teapot is also a very apt vehicle for narrative content. Victoria Christen, Pattie Chalmers, and Rebecca Harvey are artists who, when asked to write about their own pieces, speak of them as symbols or metaphors. To describe the teapot, they tell a story.

The teapot is also undeniably a decorative object, an object intended to adorn and enhance ones personal surroundings. For many years Ceramics belonged to that category of objects called “the Decorative Arts”, objects created to enrich our home environments. Decoration or “ornament”, was once perhaps more important in our culture than it is today. However, in the field of ceramics there has been a great and much needed revival of the decorative traditions of the past, both highbrow and lowbrow.  The works of Joan Bruneau, Kristen Keiffer and of Ursula Hargens are excellent examples of the pot as “ornament”, or, in the case of Bradley Sabin, the ornament as “teapot”.

The conceit of the contemporary potter or “ceramist” is that we can do and be everything. We can be craftsmen, in the best sense of the word, cultivating skill and knowledge of materials to create objects that evince beauty and a sense of tradition. We can be Artists (note the capitol “A”) using the medium of clay to engage in formal, conceptual and cultural dialogue. Our work can be utilitarian, fulfilling and enhancing the everyday acts of preparing and eating food. At the same time, it can be as visually challenging and communicative as a painting or sculpture. Look around you. Decide for yourself if this is indeed true.

Excellence. Our Measure. Our Motto. Our Goal.