Tea ceremony captures fleeting moments at Bellevue Art Museum

A woman prepares a cup of green tea for guests, in an interactive exhibit at the Bellevue Art Museum. - Courtesy Photo, Kaoru Okumura
A woman prepares a cup of green tea for guests, in an interactive exhibit at the Bellevue Art Museum.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo, Kaoru Okumura

First, boiling water is poured into a bowl; the rim and interior cleaned with a silk cloth. Next, water and matcha is whisked until a thin green froth forms. Guests are seated and presented with a sweet delicacy, followed by a bowl of the handmade tea.

Like a choreographed dance, each sequence of events is savored singularly.

“[Japanese tea ceremonies], on one level, are all about making a really beautiful moment,” said Timothy Olson co-director of the East-West Chanoyu Center (EWCC). “We realize life passes quickly and this is your chance to capture it.”

Saturday, the Bellevue Art Museum hosted a tea ceremony presented by the center. The Japanese tradition involves the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha, or powdered green tea. Dually practical and spiritual, the performance has many deviations, though it usually marks a celebration, or is used to welcome a guest.

“There’s a practical level,” said Olson, "and there’s a kind of spiritual communication [behind] all of these activities.”

In stations scattered throughout the foyer, guests could experience how the centuries-old tradition had evolved through the years. Volunteers dressed crisply in kimonos floated between crowds to answer questions and offer cups of the green jade.

“For me, it’s a chance to step back not into an ancient Japanese world, but into a world that has a different attitude to the passing of time,” said John Dillon, one of dozens who gave up his Saturday to share in the elegant beauty of the tea house. “It’s a spiritual discipline that can’t be overrated in today’s society.”

Dillon, a student and member of the EWCC, said he became mesmerized with the art form 20 years ago when a similar demonstration piqued his interest.

BAM first got the idea for Saturday’s interactive experience when Yuri Kinoshita, the artist behind the museum’s eight foot woven tea house, installed earlier this year, proposed bringing the display to life for guests. The linen, cube-like structure was trimmed with lights and in 15 minute increments women performed the tea ceremony for an audience of museum visitors.

Three installments tracked the evolution of tea ceremonies through the years, starting with its introduction to the outside world 400 years ago. When Japan opened to the West for trade, the practice was transformed into a more contemporary exchange to match the diplomacy of the era. Stout tables were added and more Western clothing might replace the Kimonos traditionally worn. Coordinators Mitchell and Bonnie Olson wanted the exhibits to showcase both the history and the intimacy of the practice.

“We wanted very small spaces so there could be a real exchange of heart,” said Mitchell, co-director of EWCC and an instructor of art history at UW, who lived in Kyoto for seven years. “You’re able to fully focus your attention on the here and the now. And that’s one of the things that makes the tea gathering such a precious event.”

Though there are different schools of the art form, that slowing down of time is an element emphasized throughout. Olson says that may be why so many guests attended Saturday’s event, and why many Westerners glom onto the tradition. Stepping into the exhibit, visitors are immediately greeted by a certain serenity.

“The tea environment is designed to be as unlike daily life as possible. You really have the sense that you’re gazing into a special world,” said Olson.

Mitchell and Olson have also hosted tea ceremonies at Bellevue Botanical Gardens and the Seattle Art Museum. Contemporary tea ceremonies can mark a spectrum of occasions, from the first signs of color in autumn, to a birthday or memorial.

Kinoshita’s display will remain at the Bellevue Art Museum through early February.

According to recent Census reports, Bellevue has become a magnet for Asian minority populations, thanks in part to high-tech jobs and good schools. In 2010 Bellevue’s Asian population rose by 77 percent in just one decade. They now comprise 27.6 percent of Bellevue residents, the highest proportion of all Washington cities.

Olson said that even if visitors don’t latch onto the tradition, he hopes experiences like this one will expose them to an alternative pace and way of living life.

“There’s nothing in our culture that compares,” he said of the ceremony's quiet elegance. “You’re really shutting [out] the outside…to enjoy a moment of beauty.”


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