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.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. What jumped out at me were the expressions "liminal space" and "chance meetings" and allowing tea to be a metaphor for transformation. To take a daily habit of drinking tea into the realm of a transformational ritual is what the world needs more of, now, as always.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to this blog post. I am glad that you found it meaningful. I am impressed with Michele's work.


© my tea diary
Maira Gall