Mutsumi and Misako Suzuki, Japan
3 in x 2.875
Partial gift of Richard H. Kimball and Julie Seagraves and purchase in memory of Arthur A. Jolliffe, Mr. and Mrs. Mutsumi Suzuki, 1984.441
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2011. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
This tea caddy (container) was made in Kyoto, Japan, in 1983 by Mutsumi Suzuki [mut-tsu-mee suh-ZOO-key] and his wife Misako [mee-SAH-ko]. The two work together as a team—Mutsumi does the lacquer work and Misako decorates each piece with lacquer.
Making this lacquerware piece involved many steps. Mutsumi began the process by creating a core shape out of wood. His original cores were sometimes so thin you can see through them. He then covered the wood core with a mixture of cloth, lacquer (a kind of tree sap), and a clay-like substance to create a smooth surface. Next, he applied lacquer in progressive layers. After applying each layer, he allowed the lacquer to dry, and then polished the entire piece until it had a smooth and shiny surface.
Once the lacquer work was completed, Misako decorated the object by sprinkling fine metal powder onto the surface in the shape of pine tree branches. Artists can also decorate lacquerware pieces by inserting another material into sections of the object’s surface that have been carved out, a technique called inlay. The decoration was then covered with a final layer of transparent lacquer.
What Inspired It
It seems the Suzukis wanted to make a tea container that was perfectly crafted and decorated in a way that would make it wonderful to use during the Asian New Year. As experts in making lacquerware, they were certainly driven by their own high standards to make the caddy smooth to the touch, with designs so delicate they would please anyone who used it. When making a tea caddy, artists hope to appeal to the user’s senses of sight and touch.
Tea caddies like this one are made to hold powdered green tea, called matcha [MAH-cha], and are used in Japanese tea ceremonies. Guests at a tea ceremony learn to focus their senses on the smallest details, on everything they can see, hear, feel, and taste. Doing this can clear one’s mind of distractions like the things on a to-do list or the possibility of traffic on the way home. By relaxing and paying close attention to the sounds, smells, and emotions that accompany preparing and drinking tea, the guests can feel as though they have escaped to a calmer and more peaceful place in their minds.
The ritual of serving tea involves a number of specific steps. The ceremony can last anywhere from twenty minutes to five hours and consists of two distinct stages, represented by the drinking of thick tea (about the consistency of white Elmer’s glue) and thin tea (about the consistency and frothiness of hot chocolate). This tea caddy was made to hold thin tea and was used during the second part of the ceremony. Both types of tea are prepared by whisking green tea powder with water. Powder used to make thin tea comes from plants that are younger. Thick tea is made from the leaves of more mature tea plants. Thin tea is also made with more water.
See an example of a Ceramic Tea Caddy for Thick Tea in the Denver Art Museum’s collection.
The host chooses which tea caddy to use during the ceremony based on who is attending, the level of formality, the season, the time of day, and how the caddy will complement other utensils like the tea bowl. Thin tea containers are often decorated with seasonal designs. The pine tree and the color red make this tea caddy appropriate for winter, especially for the Asian New Year.
When preparing for the ceremony, the host places a little mound of powdered green tea inside the container. Once the ceremony begins, he removes the lid of the caddy and scoops a small amount of tea powder into a tea bowl, whisking it with hot water to create a bitter green tea. Thin tea is then served to the guests in individual bowls. After the guests have finished their tea and the host has cleaned the utensils, the guests will often examine each item, noticing its color, shape, size, glaze, and texture. The utensils are handled with extreme care and reverence because they are often very valuable.
Information about the Japanese tea ceremony can be found here.
Two examples of tea bowls in the Denver Art Museum’s collection:
Golden pines grow up the sides of the caddy. In Japanese and Chinese culture, the pine is a symbol of longevity, good fortune, and steadfastness because of its ability to withstand strong winds, rain, and snow, and because it stays green throughout the year. Pines can also survive in rocky areas and may live for several centuries. The pine is considered virtuous and is a symbol of winter and the New Year. Note how the pine branch crosses over from the lower body of the caddy to the lid. In Japan, this kind of continuous design from one part or side to another is often used to delight the eye.
The container narrows a little at the base and has a slightly convex top. Containers like this one are similar in shape to the jujube fruit and are called natsume [nah-tsu-me], which is the Japanese word for jujube fruit. More facts about the jujube fruit can be found here.
The container’s shiny surface is the result of many layers of polished lacquer, a material that is made from the sap of lacquer trees. The lacquer tree is a close relative of poison oak and poison ivy. Artists must gradually build up immunity to the sap so that it does not irritate their skin.
The circle on top of the container could represent the Sun and/or the Moon. The artists left this ambiguous.
The circle on the top is off-center, an intentional design choice made by Matsumi. She may have chosen to place the circle closer to one edge of the lid in order to catch the attention of those who use the caddy. She might also have chosen to place the circle closer to the front end of the piece to emphasize the natural asymmetry of the container.
The golden halo surrounding the circle seems to represent the glowing light emitted by the Sun or Moon. The technique used to create this very gradual change in color—from red to gold—requires a great deal of skill.
The golden halo fades into a brilliant red halfway down the lid. This could represent the distinction between sky (lid) and earth (sides). In Japanese art, it is common to see a continuous design that moves from one part of an object to another.
There is a signature scratched into the bottom of the caddy.
The interior of the container is black and silver, and is flecked with gold. The base of the interior is more square than the exterior.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Add to the lesson by conducting your own tea ceremony, or simply serve tea. Encourage students to smell, taste and observe the properties of the tea. Have students write a Haiku about their experience.
- Discuss symbols in art. Examine the symbols of the moon or sun (such as on the wood canister lid). Have children write and create an illustration about the these symbols .