Chinese Art, Exhibitions, Japanese Art

The Littlest Tea Man

Chigusa, "with and without clothes," by Leo.

“Chigusa, with and without clothes,” by Leo.

Allison Peck is head of public affairs and marketing at Freer|Sackler.

The renowned ceramic known as Chigusa recently added another chapter to its long and storied history, and the drawings of a six-year-old boy entered the permanent record of the Smithsonian Institution. Chigusa, a 700-year-old tea-leaf storage jar, is one of the most important objects in chanoyu, the Japanese art of tea. Acquired by the museums in 2009, the jar currently is making its U.S. debut in Chigusa and the Art of Tea, an exhibition that Leo, age six, visited with his mom earlier this year.

As beautiful as Chigusa is, with its weighty simplicity and mottled brown glaze, what truly brings it to life and creates its legacy is the tradition of documentation and decoration that surrounds it: the 500 years of tea diaries, poems, records, and luxury adornments created by generations of Chigusa fans. The men who have paid homage to the jar and form the most human—and, some would argue, the most interesting—part of its story are called, aptly, “tea men.”

Chigusa and the Art of Tea wasn’t designed as an exhibition to appeal to younger audiences, so we were astonished and a little bemused to receive an email (with the charming subject line of “Chigusa, with and without clothes”) containing Leo’s accurate crayon drawings of the tea jar in various states of ceremonial display. His mom, Amy, reported a similar feeling.

“I was surprised by his drawings of Chigusa because he is the kind of boy who usually draws countless pictures of Angry Birds,” Amy wrote. “It was my idea to go see Chigusa with the family, and I wasn’t sure how Leo would respond to it at first. But he seemed to enjoy the exhibit very much. I suspect that the reasons for that include the fact that it is a jar with a name, which gives it a different kind of status among objects, for kids and grown-ups alike.”

In honor of the tradition of documenting encounters with Chigusa, Amy thought we might like to see the drawings and learn how they came to be. (Actually, she sent them twice: the first time, they had been scanned out of order, and Leo—with a rigid attention to detail worthy of both a true tea man and an art historian—requested they be re-sent in the “correct” sequence that he had intended!)

“I asked Leo why he drew the pictures of Chigusa and what gave him the idea, and he said, ‘Love!'” Amy wrote. “He said that he knew that I liked Chigusa a lot, and so he drew the pictures, so that I could remember it. Chigusa obviously made an impression on him.”

Chigusa, dressed in its new mouth cover, secured with an ornamental knot.

Chigusa, dressed in its new mouth cover, secured with an ornamental knot.

“As Leo gets older with a better sense of time,” Amy went on, “he’s interested—just like we are—in old things that have interesting stories.”

With that last sentence in particular, she unknowingly captured one of the Freer|Sackler’s most essential missions—to bring old things that have interesting stories to light, and then to step back and allow them to speak to visitors of all ages.

Andy Watsky, professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University, responded to Amy and Leo with a thank-you note. “My co-curator of the exhibition, Louise Cort, and I, and many other people at the Sackler and in Japan worked long and hard on this exhibition; we all hoped that the results would be meaningful to those who visited,” he wrote. “But I can tell you that I have never seen as fine a response as your son’s drawings. We have the records of how Chigusa has kept people interested over many centuries, including the tea diaries—in fact, sometimes the diarists included drawings of objects they saw. How wonderful that your son’s drawings now join that history as one such personal memory of Chigusa.”

He and Cort, curator of ceramics at Freer|Sackler, are requesting that Leo’s drawings and the story surrounding his trip and inspiration be entered into Chigusa’s permanent record in the Smithsonian database, making them accessible to future generations of researchers and curators. They’ve become the latest entry in that centuries-long tradition of Chigusa fandom, and Leo has become the littlest tea man.

Chigusa and the Art of Tea remains on view in the Sackler through July 27. On October 11, the exhibition will open at the Princeton University Art Museum.