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Tea for 22

Art Review


Published August 24, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT: "The Art of Tea," a group show of tea ware and accoutrements in multiple media. Shelburne Craft School's Gallery on the Green. Through September 8.

ARTWORK: "Pink Cup" by Sandra Berbeco

Thanks to the Dutch in New Amsterdam -- now called New York City -- tea was popular in America several years before it conquered England. Sailing to Asia regularly while the English were tied up in civil wars, the Dutch loved the stuff and carried it with them wherever they went. Tea arrived in Britain in the early 1650s, but didn't really catch on until King Charles II returned from exile to merry old ale-sodden England in 1660. His genteel, gilded exile had been idly passed in that tea-cozy land called Holland. An England without tea would have been unbearable, and so the rest, as Sir Thomas Lipton once said, is history.

Through September 8, the Shelburne Craft School's Gallery on the Green is devoted to tea with a 22-artist exhibition in multiple media. Aptly called "The Art of Tea," it's not just about the actual drink; the exhibition includes art that depicts the accoutrements of teatime. The largest object in the collection is an outsized pot.

Catherine Clear's gigantic scrap-metal teapot in the gallery's front yard is made from a 3.5-cubic-foot cement mixer. Applied fittings, such as a handle and spout made from the fancy arms of a park bench, turn it into a whimsical pot suitable for hundreds of gallons of tea. Its pedestal is covered with a tablecloth.

Diane Gabriel's "Child's tea dress (with tucked bodice and cap sleeves)" is hung from the gallery ceiling and floats overhead like a diminutive angel dress -- except it's made from spent tea bags. The gossamer material is a lovely shade of reddish brown. Jamie Greenbaum's "Ema" utilizes the same humble material, fashioning the bags into a concentric series of wall-mounted circles.

Ginny Joiner's "Isak Dinesen's Tea Tray" includes an expertly painted trompe l'oeil cup of tea, correspondence and reading glasses. Joiner's watercolor "Proust's Teacup" also draws a link between the popular beverage and a literary figure.

Jean Cannon's watercolor "Broken Dishes #2" is a horizontal composition comprising brightly colored shards. But most of the other tea services are intact, and run the gamut from traditional to surreal. Among Miriam Adams' cups and saucers are a rubber snake, wishbones, ribbon, scissors, hair and other mysterious items that create odd narratives within the cups. Jennifer Koch has a fascination with beetles and frequently includes them in her box-like assemblages. Her "Specimen #48" is a golden teacup full of the glistening insects.

Other works in the exhibition are two-dimensional, such as Davis Tecell's lithographic series "Tea Bowl Field Traces." The vertical compositions portray tea bowls in bucolic settings.

Sandra Berbeco's three portraits of teacups are textured canvases, each with a big cup squarely centered in the scene. In "Yellow Phoenix," a winged cup hovers against a yellow background; in "Pink Cup," her cartoonish subject is housed in a Baroque frame. Thanks to Berbeco's vigorous paint handling, her versions of the mundane as monumental avoid becoming monumentally mundane.

Despite its famous tea party, America eventually became infatuated with coffee beans. But "The Art of Tea" demonstrates that Darjeeling, orange pekoe and Earl Grey have never left the American imagination.