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1

We Shall Overcome, Claudia Van Nes

We Shall Overcome, Claudia Van Nes )

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Afloat, Claudia Van Nes

Afloat, Claudia Van Nes )

Creating Conversations With A Comfortable Cup of Tea

Published Aug 22, 2018 • Last Updated 03:56 pm, August 21, 2018

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For about a year and a half, Ann Grasso has been troubled by the idea that people, as a whole, are having a hard time talking with each other.

“So I started thinking about what could possibly set a tone that would allow for interaction and connection,” she says.

And that led her to tea.

“Tea is used in ritual and ceremony. And it’s often seen as a beverage of comfort and solace. And, whether you are drinking alone or with friends, that makes a difference in how you perceive tea,” she says.

As an artist who has had a lifelong social and political interest in equality and equanimity, she wondered if tea might help connect people across cultures and help them communicate. So she asked.

She sent out an email survey to people she knew, artists, asking them whether they drank tea, whether they saw tea as calming, what time of day they drank tea, whether they add anything to their tea, whether they ate anything with their tea, and where they bought their tea, among other questions. She asked them to tell her stories about tea, and told them she wanted to develop something that would bring cultures closer together.

As the responses came pouring in, she realized art, and art focused on this theme of tea, could show how people from different cultures and ideological backgrounds connect.

Over a cup of tea, people from different geographic, religious, educational backgrounds, even those who speak different languages, can mingle as easily as the flavors of mint, Chinese gunpowder green tea, and sugar. That particular frothy combination of calm and invigorating, bitter and sweet, is favored in countries as distinct as Syria, where it is known as atai, and Senegal, where it is known as attaya. Tea by all of its names and with all of its related traditions is relied upon the world over to foster amiable conversations among friends and foes alike.

As for using art as a means of communicating this, Grasso cites a quote by Leonard Bernstein—the composer, conductor, and educator—to drive home her point: “the best way to ‘know’ a thing is in the context of another discipline.”

“That sums up entirely why I selected art as a focus, rather than addressing communication as an issue in a way that could potentially drive people into their entrenched camps,” she says. “When you are looking at an outside object, something new, it doesn’t tend to bring your core values into play. Then I think that we have less potential anxiety or a need to stick in our heels and say, ‘I believe...’”

After collaborating with her fellow artists, she helped develop an art exhibit called TEA, Connecting Cultures, now on display at the Mercy by the Sea’s Mary C. Daly RSM Gallery on Neck Road in Madison. In addition to the exhibit, which runs through Sunday, Oct. 14 and features works from more than 40 artists, there will be a reader’s guide that is also available as a free download, offering discussion topics relating to art, economics, history, literature, politics, religion, and sociology. And there is a related video that also will be offered as a free download.

A Comfortable Cup of Tea

Grasso says as she was completing the survey, it became clear that the venue at Mercy by the Sea would be ideal. She had been working on another exhibit at Mercy called Begging Bowls and Offering Bowls, which focused on disparities between the poor and rich. While working with Sister Ann McGovern on that, Grasso brought along a piece of hers called Initiation, which has to do with a Japanese tea ceremony.

“She barely looked at anything else,” Grasso says.

Sister McGovern says she remembers it well.

“Tea has always been a source of hospitality here at Mercy. On our tables in the dining room, we have on each table an invitation for people to enjoy a comfortable cup of tea while they are here.”

Tea has long been a tradition among the Sisters of Mercy worldwide, going all the way back to the order’s founder, Catherine McAuley, an Irish Catholic laywoman who dedicated her life to helping the poor and later was ordained as one of the first Sisters of Mercy. She felt “a comfortable cup of tea” not only was healing and good for the spirit, but also as a way to take counsel, with yourself or others.

According to a story told on the Sisters of Mercy website, “Catherine McAuley was a woman of great love, compassion, and warmth. As she lay dying, she asked one of the sisters in her room to have a comfortable cup of tea ready for the sisters when she was gone. She wanted her friends to feel the serenity that tea encouraged even in a time of such distress.”

Sister McGovern, who favors a comfortable cup of mint tea in the evening, says she felt that connection when she saw Grasso’s artwork.

“Tea can bring people to a deep place of sharing, and that is what they reflect to people,” she says.

Claudia Van Nes, an artist from Chester who will have several works on display as part of the exhibit, says that has been her experience with tea, as well. She is in a tea group that meets once a month, a small group that is part of a larger group of which she is a member, and that, over tea, members of the smaller group have really gotten to know each other.

A Teaching Tool

“It’s about community and communication,” Van Nes says. “This is a group that, like any group you are in, sometimes we have rough spots and disagreements and decisions to make. If you’re having tea and you go into those rough spots together, you can make a solution. You can make a solution or compromise. It’s so very nice.”

She says she was inspired when she heard from Grasso about her idea for the exhibit, and took some of her existing work and re-worked it to better fit the theme of the exhibit.

“I wanted to meet her criteria, both artistically and philosophically. Everything came together when she mentioned it,” Van Nes says. “She’s worked very hard on this show and I wanted to be very careful about it. Using this as a teaching tool to help bridge cultures seems very timely.”

Van Nes adds that the practice of drawing tea cups and tea pots can be very satisfying in and of itself, as well.

“Any artist that doesn’t know what subject to tackle, if they’re dried up on subject matter? Get a tea cup. Fill the tea cup with tea. And draw and paint and draw and paint in the time it takes to drink the tea. That can work,” she says. “You can’t really say that about a gin and tonic.”

Grasso says she hopes the exhibit will spur conversations and communication, and reach broader audiences.

“I got an email from a woman in a Greenwich hospital. She might be interested in using the video to train her staff. That is where I hope this may go. This is such a necessary conversation,” Grasso says.

“The message today is so simple that it is easy to overlook the necessity of being vigilant about safe-guarding it: We are a human family and each of us deserves to be treated respectfully. Tea is a symbol of shared similarities. Art is one external topic of discussion that can help us find areas of similarity which then creates a basis for continued conversation. My hope is that this message will reach and resonate with a large audience.”

TEA, Connecting Cultures, is at Mercy by the Sea’s Mary C. Daly RSM Art Gallery, 167 Neck Road, Madison, through Sunday, Oct. 14. The gallery is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Sunday, Oct. 14. The reader’s guide and video will be available for download at anngrasso.com.

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