Sunday, April 19, 2020

Tea in Art with Michele Brody

This portrait is from a CommuniTea event at the Bronx Museum, 2018.
Michele's necklace represents the chemical diagram for camellia sinensis.  
LYNN: Hi Michele.  I am so glad to have the opportunity to communicate with you about tea and your art.  I know you are currently living in New York which has been hard hit by COVID-19.

MICHELE: During this time of isolation and confinement due to stopping the spread of COVID-19, I greatly appreciate your reaching out to me Lynn, and wanting to share my story with others on your blog.

Whole lives have been turned upside down by the shutting down of New York City.  But drinking my tea has helped to keep me sane with starting each day the same as I always do. Boiling a pot of water in my electric kettle, heating up my tea pot under hot water, choosing my tea for the morning, steeping, then pouring. These days I tend to add a little bit of lemon to rejuvenate the body, and lots of local honey to combat allergies. 

LYNN: I know that for over ten years now you have been working on a project called “Reflections in Tea.” A brief summary from your Reflections in Tea website describes the project in this way.

Reflections in Tea is a multi-disciplinary, social-action project that focuses on the building of community relationships by bridging cultural boundaries through the contemplative art of sharing Tea…[Project] participants preserve their memories and stories by creatively transcribing them onto 4×7” sheets of tea stained notepapers produced from drying out and flattening the previously used tea filters. The sheets are then clipped to a net and hung together, culminating in the creation of an ever-growing installation of fluttering paper quilts.

This photo is from Michele's one person show at the Bronx Museum in 2016.
LYNN:  Michele, tell me about the origins of your love of tea and how it led to your use of tea as both medium and metaphor in your art. 

MICHELE: I have always loved the color of tea. I grew up with a grandmother who always drank tea in the morning with lots and lots of lemon. I never picked up drinking coffee from my parents. It is tea that sustained me through graduate school as I sought to develop a career as an artist, so much so that I started to work with ways to incorporate tea into my portfolio.

It all started with a footprint that was left on the clean white floor of my studio one day by an inconsiderate person who tramped into my space. I was very upset by the disruption, but a professor suggested I work with this “stain” and find a way to use it as part of my process. She prompted me to think about how we leave our memories behind for other’s to witness. I first started to use the stains left by the growing process in fabric as a way to mark time, but since tea was such a big part of my daily life I also started to try different ways to use the multi-colored stains left by various types of tea as a metaphor for how a memory and experience can be preserved. It is through the mark left by a stain that a story can be told and shared. This is the basic metaphorical element of my art with tea: to share and preserve our memories. 

LYNN: How has your "Reflections in Tea" project enriched your life?

MICHELE: When I came up with the idea for Reflections in Tea, which was originally titled Tea House Productions, I had been working on an earlier long-term project with manhole covers and the City Streets. I had designed a set of historic plaques in the form of functional manhole covers that were to be installed throughout Lower Manhattan to reference sites of lost history, such as demolished buildings, re-arranged street-scapes and even a buried fresh water pond.  This had been started before 9/11, which was another catastrophe that upended life in New York City.  I wished to continue working with installing a project on the City Streets that would make passersby see the day-to-day world around them a little differently. I have always been interested in liminal spaces, the places that exist in between the sites where we have been and where we are going to. Examples of these liminal spaces are hallways, stairwells, streets and sidewalks. Throughout my practice as a site-specific installation artist these are the sites that I have been most attracted to engaging. I wanted to bring my love of tea and its practice as part of my daily life to the public in a new way. The project started in a coffee cart initially envisioned as a mobile teahouse, the main component of Reflections in Tea is the invitation of the public to enter and sit within a semi-private space to share a pot of tea and their stories.  

~I have always been interested in liminal spaces, the

 places that exist in between the sites where we have

 been and where we are going to.~

By taking the time to cross the threshold of the teahouse, each participant is introduced to how the drinking of tea is practiced throughout the world as a transformative custom. I wanted to create a private space within the public sphere of the streets of New York where a transformative process could take place that presented the question of what does it mean to be fully present when meeting someone for the first time.  And by being set in a street vendor cart, the project was meant to comment on our American urban “to go” culture by directly counterbalancing it with a personal experience that asks one to cross over a threshold into a space set aside to slow down time. The goal of Reflections in Tea has always been to cross over boundaries between what is private within the public realm, and how a chance meeting between destinations can transform one’s perspective. This is similar to the practice of tea throughout the world as a transformative custom from the public life out of doors to the interior private life. This practice can be seen through the English Tea time at the end of the work day, to the welcoming of a guest into ones home in the Middle East and by marking the changing seasons through the Chinese practice in choosing teas that reflect each season.

~The study and practice of these world-wide rituals 

have greatly enriched my life…~

The study and practice of these world-wide rituals have greatly enriched my life in ways I never would have imagined, especially when I moved to The Bronx and started to serve tea daily to seniors in a range of centers throughout the Borough and at the Bronx Museum. I have become known as the Tea Lady, and have helped enrich a great many lives around me through the combination of Tea and the Arts.
And even during these days of confinement I continue to reach out through the internet to invite others to join in the CommuniTea of sharing reflections on the times. In the past I have brought seniors together to dance, write poetry, make hats and now sing while with singer/songwriter Olivier Marcaud, who arrived in the NY the day before the travel ban. Together we have been revising our original project to work with seniors at a nearby center through the NYC SU-CASA program to bring them together as a choir singing their own lyrics by moving the project online through a series of videos titled the Singing Rendezvous in The Bronx. The videos can be found on YouTube at this link: Each day we work on new ways to bring our CommuniTea together with the goal of transforming this time of isolation into a process of sharing.

LYNN: What tea-related projects can we look forward to you taking on in the future?

MICHELE: I guess I already answered this question above, but there is still more to come. I was supposed to go to Scotland for an artist residency in an old castle so I could focus on the next projects for Reflections in Tea. There seems to always be new ways to keep on reviving this age-old tradition of bringing people together to share a cuppa. Even if I end up not being able to travel abroad this summer, I will keep on coming up with the ways to share tea with others, and to inspire communities to spread the word themselves. 

I (Lynn here) have always wondered what it is about tea that so thoroughly enchants me.  These two books (pictured above) by artist Michele Brody contain, if not a definitive answer to my wondering, then plenty of food for thought.  These books document the “Reflections in Tea” project that Michele has been working on for over ten years now.

Michele’s books have given me an abundance “tea thoughts” to mull over. The books include the responses, reflections, and stories of hundreds of people who have taken tea with Michele over these past ten years. Since learning about Michele and this project, I felt that my series of blog posts about tea in art would not be complete without an interview and exploration of her work.

For further information about Michele and her “Reflections in Tea” project, see:

Michele's "Reflections in Tea" project is sponsored by SerendipiTea.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Tea in Art with Jennifer Coyne Qudeen

Jennifer Coyne Qudeen, Water Dreams 1 & Water Dreams 2

JenniferCoyne Qudeen is an artist who explores the metaphorical aspects of tea bag papers as keepers of marks and memories. She was one of the artists included in the Alchemy of Tea exhibit organized by Jen Crickenberger. In her current work, Jennifer combines memory-laden tea bags with iconic silhouettes of houses to create images almost archetypal in their impact.

I have reached out to Jennifer to learn more about the role of tea in her work and in her life.

 LYNN: First, I would love to hear about your journey with drinking tea - from those early days in your grandmother's kitchen to your trip to Scotland - to your current enjoyment of tea as a beverage.

JENNIFER: My journey with tea – it’s funny to think of it as a journey. I grew up drinking tea, mostly Lipton. We lived near my dad’s parents and my grandmother was the tea brewer. She’d put water on to boil and get out a big metal mixing bowl that she’d add Lipton tea bags to along with sliced lemons or oranges and mint fresh from the garden. And sugar. It’s got to be sweet tea. Once the water boiled and was poured over everything, the mingled scents filled their small house. It was heavenly.
For most of my life, I drank only black teas – black pekoe, Earl Grey, Irish Breakfast. I discovered Lady Grey in Scotland where I’d traveled to to take a workshop with Canadian artist Sandra Brownlee at Big Cat Textiles in Newburgh. Lady Grey is a smoother, more floral (to me) version of Earl Grey. Its lighter notes fit the mood of the week and, happily, is available at our local grocery.

These days my favorites are Stash Jasmine Green, Yogi Sweet Tangerine Positive Energy (black), Harney & Sons Rose Scented and Paris (both black) as well as their Organic Bangkok, which is a green tea with hints of coconut and lemongrass.

 LYNN: I understand that you, as an artist, have been working with stained teabags for a number of years now.  How did this idea of working with teabags as an art material come to you originally?  In what ways have you used teabags in your art and how has your use of teabags as an art material transformed over the years?

JENNIFER: My exploration of recycled tea bags as an art material came about quite by accident. After brewing a cup of tea one day, I set the tea bag aside and forgot about it. When I noticed it the next day, the tea had settled into the folds and dried which resulted in the paper being darker there. My curiosity was peaked so I went through the process of emptying and unfolding the tea bag. The tea marks were beautiful. And that was the beginning of my tea bag collection.

It was a year or so later before I began incorporating the tea bags themselves in my art. Before that, I had been using tea to aid in rusting cloth and paper. After researching just what type of paper tea bags are and discovering that most are abaca paper, I decided that if it was strong enough to survive being submerged in boiling water, the bags could survive being marked on or stitched on…or being run through an inkjet printer. And they have.

They are also wonderful in printmaking. I have printed on them using a gel plate as well as running them through a press. The bags are thin enough that the ink/paint soaks in rather than simply setting on the surface. Their translucency is an added bonus and is perfect for layering.
I definitely enjoy the versatility of the tea bags – they’re paper so you can do just about anything that you would do with paper, yet they also remind me of organza with their thinness and translucent qualities.

 LYNN: Imagine that we are in your home. The water is getting hot and you are about to prepare your favorite tea. What tea will we be drinking?

JENNIFER: Today we would be drinking Harney and Sons Rose Scented black tea. The rose scent transports me to a summer garden filled with rose bushes in bloom. And the rose taste mixed with the black tea is wonderful.

As I write this, it is grey and threatening to rain…again. I’m ready to bypass spring (and COVID 19) and go straight into summer when it’s nice to sit outside and visit with friends.

To learn more about artist Jennifer Coyne Qudeen and her work, visit her website at

You can also find up to date information from Jennifer on Instagram @jennifercoynequdeen.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Jen Crickenberger and the Alchemy of Tea

Alchemy of Tea, Cornelius Art Center, Cornelius, North Carolina, 2014, September 13 - November 14

Have you ever seen an art exhibition focused entirely on the theme of tea? In 2014, the Cornelius Art Center in Cornelius, North Carolina hosted just such a show.  The exhibition, Alchemy of Tea, featured the work of six artists who used tea as both “medium and muse.” I have reached out to artist and curator of the show, Jen Crickenberger, to learn more about Alchemy of Tea and her own relationship with tea.

LYNN: I so regret that I did not see the Alchemy of Tea show when it was in North Carolina at the Cornelius Art Center back in 2014. Photos of the show and artist statements are available online in the digital exhibition catalog. But I want to know more. How did the show, Alchemy of Tea, come to be?  Was it your idea? And who selected the artists who were included?

JEN: As the Curator for the Cornelius Arts Center, I really enjoyed coming up with concepts for exhibitions that would expose the community to unique approaches to art. I love installation and paper-based art because of my background in creating this type of work. So, I had decided to do an exhibition on these types of artists.  While I was researching artists, I came across the work of Mari Omari and fell in love! Her work is gorgeous! I appreciate the fact that it is so intricate and minimalistic at the same time. Her work really embodies the natural warmth and coloration of tea as she simply uses tea and paper to create it. Once she agreed to do the exhibit, I decided to see how far I could take the concept of the exhibit by expanding it to other tea-based artists using different mediums like sculpture and photography. I also knew that I wanted to include at least one local artist and the one I selected was Bridget Conn. I love the photographic detail she is able to achieve by transferring her photographic images onto teabags and a variety of surfaces. The narratives conveyed in each image spoke to me on a personal level and I felt her work was a good juxtaposition to Mari’s. I then found RodneyThompson’s work. I really liked the way that he created unique, abstract pieces using ordinary materials like teabags combined with the encaustic process. Jennifer Coyne-Qudeen’s work added a bit of softness and movement to the exhibition. It paired nicely with the other pieces as it suspended and flowed off of the walls. Barbara Bartlett contributed a beautiful, large-scale centerpiece for the exhibition with her suspended paper installation. Elizabeth Alexander’s beautifully sculpted teacups added a touch of social commentary on the act of tea drinking, historical representation of these types of vessels and the fragility of porcelain. I wanted to bring the teacup form into the context of the exhibition to add that recognizable layer into the visual narrative and to help the audience make that connection to the medium behind Alchemy of Tea.

The Community Tea Cup Project coincided with this exhibition while on display at the CAC and we featured local teacups submitted by artists of all ages. It was wonderful to see the local interpretations of teacups aside this exhibition and to allow the broader community to engage and participate in the exhibit.

Click to enlarge image.

LYNN: What places did the show travel to after it’s time in North Carolina?

JEN: It traveled to Texas for an exhibition at LoneStar College-Kingwood Gallery. The gallery held a traditional tea ceremony as a part of the opening reception. It was inspiring to see the exhibition travel and come to life in a new way!

LYNN: Alchemy of Tea was such a strong and visually rich exhibit. Being a tea lover, art lover, and black tea drinker, I almost swoon at the abundance of sepia tea stained art work in the show. Are you, yourself, a tea lover?  If you are, tell us a bit about your relationship with tea.

JEN: I love tea! I have always loved tea but I think I really fell in love with it while traveling through Morocco. The tea there was such an important part of the culture. It was absolutely beautiful! The loose tea had the most amazing scent and it was packed with colorful flowers, flavors and textures. It was offered in small, ornate silver pots paired with tiny gold-leaf embellished glasses. But I have always been a tea drinker. Every day when I go to teach my after school art classes, I make a nice warm cup of Earl Grey tea with a bit of honey in it to sip on during my lesson. It makes me feel relaxed and creative.

LYNN: You are a woman of many talents.  In addition to being a freelance art educator, you are a professional photographer. How does your love of tea intertwine with your work in the fields of art education and photography?

JEN: Thank you! I think the idea of using tea as a medium is engrained in me ever since I curated the Alchemy of Tea exhibition. So, it’s always a creative tool that I can use when needed. I recently did a project with my students using tea and coffee to paint symbolic imagery on large sheets of watercolor paper. They turned out so nice and my students really enjoyed working with non-traditional materials. In my personal work, I have created found-art tea bags as a part of an installation entitled, “Among Women.” The ends of the tea strings held images and blurbs of intimate conversations. It was as if the tea bags sitting in the cups represented the presence of two women and their deepest thoughts. So, I guess that I value the use of tea as a symbol and artistic medium.

LYNN: Do you have other tea-related art projects lined up for the future?

JEN: I am in the process of creating a large-scale mixed media piece that integrates the use of charcoal, tea and coffee. I was inspired by the project that I did recently with my students and decided that I’d like to continue the creative process in my own work at home.


To see the exhibition catalog for Alchemy of Tea, click HERE.

To learn more about Jen Crickenberger and her work, click HERE.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Getty Museum Challenge Comes to My House

I'm a bit late to the game on this one.  But in the end, I could not resist the challenge to recreate a master painting with stuff I had around the house.  After all, I am focusing on tea in art these days. A while back I wrote a blog post about this painting by Ella Hergesheimer, The Old Tea Pot. The painting is held by The Johnson Collection in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And I'm glad to revisit the image in this fun and creative way.  It's amazing what one can find in the deep recesses of one's kitchen cabinets!
© my tea diary
Maira Gall