Contemporary teapots throw their own party in the art market: no longer viewed as a mere functional object, the ever-tantalizing teapot is being embraced as a serious art form by a growing number of collectors, galleries and museums

Contemporary teapots throw their own party in the art market: no longer viewed as a mere functional object, the ever-tantalizing teapot is being embraced as a serious art form by a growing number of collectors, galleries and museums – Contemporary Teapots

Vanessa Silberman

Throughout its 400-year history, the teapot has served many functions–as an utilitarian vessel to pour tea, as a symbol of hospitality and comfort, as a status symbol among the rich and, because of it’s technical challenges, as a showcase of an artist’s fine craftsmanship. Recently, the teapot has been elevated to what some would call a “higher” function–that of the fine-art object–due to a new generation of innovative American artists who have entered the field. They have created an astonishing and provoking array of teapots in various media that often look nothing like a teapot in the traditional sense of the word. Fanciful, elegant, abstract and sculptural, organic, figurative, exotic and satirical, these teapots explore color, form and content in ways never imagined. And as the genre of contemporary teapots becomes more important within the craft movement and the art world in general, collectors, galleries and museums are yearning to get in on this ever-enticing Mad Hatter’s tea party.

“I have seen a definite rise in interest in teapots as an art form over the last few years at SOFA,” said Barbara Smyth-Jones, director of public relations for the bi-annual exposition that takes place in Chicago and New York. “Many more galleries are showing one or two pieces … And what’s interesting is this rise has occurred in all media, not just ceramics.”

Indeed, today’s artists are creating teapots in such diverse and often surprising media as twigs, textiles, lace, buttons, sterling silver, glass, steel, fiber and wood.

“Teapots represent a new, emerging art form” continued Smyth-Jones. “In many ways, SOFA is a comfortable show–the artwork is very accessible and often humorous–and if you had to point to an object that crosses over, I think these multi-media teapots really appeal to a broad public. They reference the functional arts but with an intellectual, fine-art sensibility, and they represent a mixing of high and popular culture.”

Growing Museum Interest

During the 1980s, teapot collecting became a big trend, and several major private teapot collections were established. Now, according to Leslie Ferrin, director of the Ferrin Gallery in Lenox, Mass., “the institutional interest is occurring. Several museums that collect contemporary ceramic art are beginning to assemble important collections of this period of teapot production … Institutional interest is great because it inspires people to collect privately as well.”

The Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wis., the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery and the American Craft Museum in New York are but a few of the museums with growing teapot collections. The Newark Museum in Newark, N.J., will open a show in 2003 on the vessel, and, according to Ferrin, “they will have quite a number of strong teapots in the show.” Meanwhile, The Clay Art Center in Port Chester, N.Y., recently held an exhibit called “Teapots Transformed: Exploration of an Object.”

And beginning May 16, a major traveling exhibit entitled “The Artful Teapot: 20th-Century Expressions from the Kamm Collection,” based on Garth Clark’s book of the same name, will make its debut at COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, Calif. On view will be 250 teapots from the collection of Sonny and Gloria Kamm of Los Angeles, who in the course of 15 years have amassed a collection of 7,000 teapots–purportedly one of the largest teapot collections in the world. “My heart is like a hotel–I have room for a lot of things,” said Kamm, who also collects paintings, large-scale contemporary glass and ceramics. The exhibit has already secured an impressive list of venues, including the Montgomery Museum of Art in Montgomery, Ala., the George Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Long Beach Art Museum in Long Beach, Calif., and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C.

Such acceptance from the museum world suggests that teapots have made it into the major leagues, and it strengthens the already promising future for the market for contemporary teapots.

The Appeal of Contemporary Teapots

With the teapot’s rich history in decorative arts, political history and its references to home, it isn’t difficult to understand why people are drawn to the concept of the teapot, whether as collectors or as artists. “There are so many layers to this object,” explained Ferrin, who began showing teapots at Pinch Pottery in Northhampton, Mass., in 1979 and began holding annual teapot shows. In 1987, she opened the Ferrin Gallery, which specializes in high-end contemporary ceramic art with a focus on teapots. “Teapots make people happy. It is a very joyous type of artwork to collect. It has some whimsy to it, it has character … and it’s a wonderful way for couples to collect together.”

For Libby Cooper, director of the Mobilia Gallery in Cambridge, Mass., the approachable nature of the teapot form is a major draw. “Teapots have a traditional, reassuring shape, so people are drawn to them. It’s also the idea of tea and what it conveys–socializing, your grandmother perhaps. And artists are constantly trying to reinvent the form.”

One look at Clark’s book, The Artful Teapot, or Ferrin’s book, Teapots Transformed: Exploration of an Object, and Cooper’s words ring true. Colorful or subdued, quirky or elegant, anthropomorphic or abstract, the endlessly varied teapot can fit in with almost any person’s individual style and tastes. Oftentimes, the only thing binding these teapots together is the fact that they each have a handle, spout and lid.

“For me, teapots represent some of the more interesting and innovative work being created out there, not only in the crafts field, but also in the art world,” said Kamm. “The teapot is a great excuse to make a sculpture. The art form is serious, but done in a lighter, more fun vernacular. Today’s contemporary art is inaccessible to a lot of people, and people don’t know what they are supposed to like. With the teapot, however, you can lure them in since they are familiar with the form.”

The Perimeter Gallery in Chicago, which exhibits ceramics alongside paintings and works on paper, shows teapots as an added touch to its fine art gallery. “We like the relationship between two-dimensional and three-dimensional work. It’s exciting to see how these mediums play off of each other,” said Gallery Director Frank Paluch.

For Mark Del Vecchio, director of the Garth Clark Gallery in New York, which began holding teapot shows in 1983 and held a show last July on Yixing teapots (pronounced ee-shing), the appeal of collecting teapots goes way beyond function. “The teapot attracts collectors because the form crosses boundaries” he said. “It can fit into art collections, craft collections or just basic collections. It is a compelling form to try and rework, and it has always attracted artists who want to experiment.”

One such artist is Kate Anderson of St. Louis, whose meticulously knotted teapots are shown at Snyderman/The Works Gallery in Philadelphia and regularly sell out with a $15,000 price tag. Anderson was a professional painter for 15 years before turning to Chinese knotting in 1996. She began experimenting with the teapot form in 1998 and today admits she is hooked.

“Teapots are where it’s at for me,” she said. “They are such an icon, a familiar one that people recognize, and they are so comfortable as an image, so it is really exciting when artists create a teapot that makes a statement about art. What you can do with the form is unbelievable.”

According to Cooper, collectors are often drawn to teapots with the hope of discovering a new artist. Like Anderson, many artists are drawn to teapots because of the freedoms they offer and the opportunity to break into a new medium. Cooper’s gallery, for example, specializes in media like textiles, glass and jewelry–non-traditional media for teapots. Five years ago, a teapot collector visited Mobilia and suggested the gallery’s artists create teapots in the media which they worked. Delighted by this idea, Cooper invited her artists to try the form, and months later, she mounted “Teapots Redefined” featuring teapots in all media. The exhibit was a hit, and since then, Cooper has kept a collection of mixed-media teapots on view at her gallery. Next, she will exhibit mixed-media teapots at SOFA New York from May 30 to June 3.

“In painting, to say something new and original is pretty much impossible,” Anderson explained. “Many of the masters are dead. In the craft world, a lot of the masters are still living, so you can be a third generation in this field and still say something new and innovative.”

Anderson also likes the teapot as a form because it blurs the lines between “high art” and “low art craft.” “Though the teapot references craft, I base my designs on painting, and I like blending and blurring these lines,” she said.

An Explosion of Artists

Since teapots are an inherent form within the ceramics field, any gallery that shows ceramics in depth will have a teapot show at some time or another. Confirmed Del Vecchio, “Just about every artist I have who makes any kind of vessel-related work usually has played on the idea of a teapot at some point in their career.”

But how can “at some point” account for the explosion of artists who have burst onto the teapot scene? The current number of artists working in the teapot genre is believed to number well over 1,000. This wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

Explained Ferrin, “So many artists entered the field of decorative arts in the 1970s and ’80s as a means to make a living. They began to achieve a certain level of competency and ability so they could create more elaborate and interesting work. So here was this influx of a group creating affordable and creative objects, and when they found out they could get paid well for it … the rest is history.”

Another factor explaining the explosion of new artists creating teapots, mixed-media in particular, is the tea company Celestial Seasonings. About 10 years ago, the company asked Ferrin to develop an annual competition where artists would submit a teapot, and from that pool the company would select 20 to 30 artists for an annual exhibition. About 200 teapot submissions were received each year during its five-year run.

“The Celestial Seasonings competition was quite influential to artists who were working in other media,” said Ferrin. “Up until then, most of the artists who made decorative, sculptural teapots worked in clay. Once this competition began, artists began creating teapots in wood, silver, mixed media … many artists in different media were attracted to the concept of the teapot to express their ideas. Since they did not have to be functional, it did bring in a tremendous amount of artists and new work. It opened the door to the form.”

Ferrin, who in craft circles is affectionately referred to as the “teapot queen,” was one of the first people to actively promote and expose collectors to this new art form. Garth Clark’s best-selling 1987 book, The Eccentric Teapot: Four Hundred Years of Invention, also helped fuel the tremendous rise in interest in collecting teapots, according to Del Vecchio.

A Growing Market

Along with the explosion of new work has come a significant rise of new collectors and an increase in prices. “Over the last several years, the collector base has grown tremendously for decorative teapots,” said Ruth Snyderman of the Snyderman Gallery/The Works of Philadelphia, which began showing teapots to the collectors market about 10 years ago. In June, Snyderman will open an exhibit for John Rohlfing, well-known for his complicated and imaginative teapots.

Del Vecchio agreed, stating, “Within the last 15 years, there has grown a huge collecting force from the $10 to $30 teapot on up to the $5,000 to $10,000 teapot. There are a number of them across the country, at all different levels.”

The teapots at Mobilia Gallery, which are all one-of-a-kinds, can cost up to $24,000. “But you can still get a teapot that is reasonably priced,” Cooper said, citing that a number of teapots at her gallery sell for $600. According to Cooper, collectors don’t have a hard time laying down that much cash for what might be considered a “functional” object. “People really love them. It doesn’t matter who you are, teapots are something that everyone can respond to.”

Pinch Gallery, meanwhile, offers both limited- and unlimited-edition teapots, offering a more affordable alternative for collectors.

According to dealers, no specific kind of teapot sells better than another. “Some collectors are drawn to a teapot with bright colors and organic qualities, others may be interested in the austere, zen-inspired studio teapots,” said Ferrin. “And some collectors like to collect as many different artists as possible, while others choose two or three artists and are very dedicated to them.”

As is often the case, the one-of-a-kind teapots aren’t functional, and if they are, they usually aren’t collected for their utilitarian value. “It’s interesting when you think about American teapot collectors,” said Del Vecchio, “because so few of them ever `take tea.’ So they are collecting the form.”

Snyderman said the affordable, merely functional teapots do not sell as well as the more unusual and expensive designs, which lend themselves to all types of images and styles.

“Most people who collect teapots aren’t really looking for function–they are looking more at the form,” agreed Cooper. For this reason, Cooper considers these decorative teapots to be fine art. “There is a very fine line between fine art and craft, and the work I show is of such a high caliber that I definitely consider it to be fine art.”

Collectors, it seems, agree with this sentiment, especially considering the prices paid for a one-of-a-kind teapot. Kamm certainly does. “Many of the teapots I collect are artistic renditions, so they don’t have to work,” he said. “I like the story about the Russian artist Malevich, who once created a teapot for a factory. The manager complained that the teapot didn’t pour, and Malevich replied, `That’s because it is about the teapot.'”

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