Sunday, March 22, 2020

Tea in Art with Mari Omori

Mari Omori. Photograph by Chris Akin.
From the start I knew I would resonate with artist Mari Omori. “Tea is more than a beverage,” she says in the first line of her artist statement. And photographs of her artwork document the scores of sepia-stained tea bags that have passed through her hands.

Born and raised in Japan, Mari Omori is an artist, curator, and professor of art at Lone Star College-Kingwood near Houston, Texas. She has explored tea as an art medium since 1997. I was intrigued to learn about Ms. Omori’s relationship with tea and reason for using it in her art, so I have corresponded with her over these past several weeks.

Omori, Mari, Katachi: Shape, tea stain, teabag envelope archival paste on paper, 2014. Photograph by Chris Akin.

Omori, Mari, Tea with Our Mothers, 2009-2011.
Omori, Mari, Tea with Our Mothers, 2009-2011.

Tell me a bit about your journey with tea which began with your early years in Japan and has continued through these many years you have spent in the United States. 

I was raised in post War II Japan where drinking tea was a daily custom. Tea was served at least four to five times a day, in the morning, at 10am, lunchtime, at 3pm, and with dinner.  There were several kinds of teas produced and consumed in Japan; Matcha (powdered tea), Sencha (green tea), Hojicha (roasted), Bancha, Genmaicha, Kukicha etc.

One of my most interesting memories of my paternal grandmother was that she dropped a piece of Umeboshi (pickled plum) into her teacup every morning and consumed both the umeboshi and the tea! She lived until 93, thus there might have been a benefit in her longevity.

During high school time, I was urged to take tea ceremony lessons every week, though I was less than enthusiastic.  Learning to master traditional tea ceremony was almost required if you were a woman at that time. The lessons were extremely formal. If I missed one step, the tea could not be served properly. Sitting on the tatami mat with both legs folded was excruciatingly painful. Then I made a note of the tea masters’ skin one day. Their cheeks and hands were smooth and glowing like a baby’s. So, I tried not to miss each lesson.  Time passed. Much tea was served and consumed.

When I came to the US to learn English as a second language, I was introduced to sun made tea by my host, Mrs. White. Every morning, Mrs. White put two teabags in a large glass jar filled with water and placed it in the California sun. During my stay, the hot tea custom was forgotten, although briefly.

The following years were focused on raising a family and continuing my education. After earning an MFA from UCLA, I taught at universities until my family and I moved to Houston, TX in 1992!

As I settled into life in the southern part of the country, many explorations were made in my work as well.  I was looking back and thinking my upbringing, Japanese aesthetics, and my authentic self.  Perhaps I longed for the comfort of tea and familiar rhythms of life that tea drinking symbolized.

~Opening the bag I saw magical stain marks made by the essence of tea and the passage of time. A serious exploration of tea had begun.~

One day, a gallerist visited my studio. I am usually well prepared for serving fresh tea. However, not that day. With no fresh Sencha to serve, my only choice was to serve tea with a teabag. After the guest departed, I saved the teabag on a plate for a day. The following day I noticed the water mark patterns that appeared on the teabag.  Opening the bag I saw magical stain marks made by the essence of tea and the passage of time. A serious exploration of tea had begun. I started using all the components of a teabag; the tea container, string, paper tag, the tea stain, even the fragrance.

Material Witness. Photograph by Christina Omori.
The largest work I produced at that time was inspired by memories of my father. Over 3,000 family sized teabags were brewed, dried, opened, and pressed. Each tea stained paper was collaged on Arches paper. I typed the writings of my father over these. The resulting room-sized installation entitled Material Witness was exhibited at Texas State University San Marcos Art Gallery in 2006.

Imagine that we are in your home. The water is getting hot and you are preparing your favorite tea. What sort of “tea equipment” will you use and what tea are we about to drink?

Knowing your history with tea has been long, I would serve you Matcha, the powdered green tea. To make a less formal tea ceremony, I would prepare a tea bowl (Chawan), tea chest (Natsume), tea spoon (Chashaku), a napkin (kaishi) with a dry sweet, all on a tray.

Photograph provided by Mari Omori.
The design and shape of tea utensils depend on the season, time of day, and kind of tea being served. The tea bowl shape and surface decorations reflect seasons. The wall of tea bowls tends to be thick for cooler seasons.  In March, the glaze or surface design of of the tea bowl may have spring blossoms. The season can be also reflected on the dry sweets you take before drinking the tea. The essence of such tea sharing can be summed up this way, ‘Ichigo Ichie’, meaning one moment, one meeting, as if there will never be a moment like it in life.

What are your daily tea habits or rituals?

The most enjoyable tea is the first tea of the day. I am an early riser at 5 AM.  To start the day with a cup of Sencha green tea is a special treat! This refreshing tea and its residual effects seem to last for the rest of the day.

Between my classes, I occasionally enjoy ginger tea to stimulate my senses and soothe my throat.  I am known by my students as a constant speaker!

You are a woman of many talents. In addition to being an artist you are a professor of art. How does your love of tea intertwine with your art making and teaching?

Interesting question!  I never thought about how my love of tea intertwines with teaching. But, yes to intertwining with making art.  I admire the inventive minds behind those teabag designs. The humble teabag is an excellent example of “form follows function.”

I think that drinking tea may contribute to good health and help clear one’s mind. Drinking tea together can bring instructors and learners closer and encourage thinking of others, even as we share that moment together, a moment that is never to be repeated in life.

Tea and teaching have another thing in common. The word “teaching” has tea in it! Teaching begins with tea.

Omori, Mari, Tea House, 2004.

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Maira Gall