Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Song Dynasty Teaware

I was having an accident free week and Michael deemed it safe enough to pull out some pieces from his collection of Song Dynasty ceramics for my education. Michael uses words with great economy and he prefers to teach by showing. He did turn down my offers to help him carry the antiques to the table and suggested I stand perfectly still until everything had been safely settled.

A scattering of stars against a deep ebony glaze. The beauty of this tea bowl lies in it's deceptive simplicity. A sophisticated expression of muted form and minimal color that characterizes many Song ceramics. Pieces like these are understated and easily overlooked by untrained eyes. The bowl fit perfectly to the curve of my hand. The surface was cool and inviting to touch and I marveled at the natural and seemingly effortless styling.
The rich glaze is allowed to pool, thick and luxurious towards the base.
The naked foot adds a lovely and thoughtful contrast.

Tea bowl next to a tea or wine cup.

These might be the smallest cups from the Song Dynasty I've ever seen.These cups are very dear to Winnie's heart and still in use. If you catch her in the right circumstance, you may be lucky enough to sip tea from them one day. Now if only there were a tea old enough...

This pale beauty is a cup with connected saucer. Michael and Winnie wanted to show me these early influences that shaped the modern gaiwan. Since we rarely use the saucers that come with most gaiwans (except for display), it was interesting to see how long cups have been married to saucers and even fused into a single piece. Cups and stands were also made into separate components.
How to drink out of one these works of art? One hand grasps the saucer and carries the cup toward the mouth. The other hand screens the tilted cup and bottom half of the face while you drink.
With almost modern looking silhouettes and beautiful finishes, these works seem to exist out of time.
My communion with the past was at an end and Michael carefully put the ceramics back, away from harm's reach. Seeing the despondent look on my face, he said, "Cheer up. There's still so much more you have to see."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Like Water for Tea

I think for as long as Michael has been studying tea, he's also been learning about water. Whether it's a new understanding or rediscovering an old tradition, he wants to know the how and why of water. He's played with many types water from springs, wells, melted glaciers and so on. At the Gallery we boil our water with mineral rocks from Mongolia in our kettles to add fullness and and a soft, silky texture. In China, it is traditional to soak these types of stones in water for drinking and cooking purposes. Although the why was not clear, the result was a better tasting water and tea that kept people healthy. Our clients also enjoy using the stones but we could never explain why these rocks worked the way they do. To help shed some light on this, Scott, a close friend and patron of the Gallery, had our rocks examined by a mineral expert and discovered some interesting results.
There was a surprising amount of water soluble potassium. And though the expert couldn't test for exact amounts of silica, he was certain the rocks contained a large amount. To explain what the effect these minerals might have when dissolved in water, Scott also sent a link to an article on the nuances of drinking water. Most enlightening was this description: "Potassium, for example, may give water a sweet taste. Silica may impart silkiness. Calcium can give the water a lactic taste some people find refreshing. Others enjoy the cleansing quality of water with a high sodium content."
There's something else the rocks impart: A pleasant clinking sound from the kettle as they get jostled by the boiling water. The gentle ring of stone bumping up against the glass is incredibly soothing.

What else can affect the taste of water? Here at the Gallery, Michael is still experimenting with water. Sometimes he starts with spring water or filters his own and stores it in this late Ming to early Ching Dynasty water jar for a few days before using it to brew tea.

The result of many blind taste tests with the unwitting participation of shop visitors had everyone preferring the flavor of the water from the antique water jar. "Sweeter and softer" was the most common response. We still don't know why a 200 year old, glazed porcelain pot would have such an effect on water. The same water did not have that sweet fullness when we used other contemporary porcelain vessels.
Of course not everyone can haul out a Ching Dynasty water jar to store water for tea but I hope others will experiment on their own local or imported waters with different materials and share their results.

As for Michael and friends, the experiments continue...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ching Dynasty Pewter Teapot

Kai dropped by last week with another unusual teapot from his collection. I had mentioned an interest in pewter clad Yixing teapots during an earlier visit and he was kind enough to bring his own and satisfy my curiosity. Another Ching Dynasty teapot from the 1850's. Kai confided that pewter clad teapots were not a style he particularly admired. But he did appreciate the historic value and craftsmanship of this one. It's in great condition except for some damage to the all pewter lid. And no, I am not responsible for the dent.

The shape of the teapot mimics a common good luck symbol, one that is often seen in jade jewelry. I asked what the inscription meant but there was trouble deciphering some of the characters and I hope maybe a reader of this post could illuminate me.
A common embellishment seen in pewter teapots are spouts and handles carved from jade (nephrite). I think it's a beautiful touch, the pale stone lightens up the metal composition and gives elegance to plain pewter. Kai was quick to point out the jade was of moderate quality and added little to the monetary value of the pot.
From certain angles the clean, sharp lines gave this teapot a modern silhouette.

I found the artist's stamp inside the teapot.
I'm grateful to Kai for sharing his collection and knowledge with me. I look forward to his visits and a chance to sit by his side while he talks about his appreciation for Yixing teapots and the joys of collecting. I know it's inspired my own passion for these teapots and opened my eyes to the many beautiful styles.