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Ceramicist Joel Diepenbrock pours tea at the Sanctuary

Arcata-based ceramicist Joel Diepenbrock's exhibition this month at the Sanctuary is part traditional display, part interactive rite. Diepenbrock's vessels are completed in the act of use. When he presents his wares during Arts Arcata, he will be hosting members of the public in a tea ceremony using his own pieces, inspired by traditional designs used in Chinese and Japanese tea rituals. "Most of the bowls are Japanese cha wan tea bowls, which are low and wide. It's a really nice simple way to drink tea," Diepenbrock observes. "Because of the way the bowl's shaped, you get to see the leaves unfurl, which is nice."

The Chinese gong fu tea ritual, he points out, involves a wider range of paraphernalia than its Japanese equivalent. The ritual of tea in this tradition can involve several brewing vessels, a tea pitcher and a brewing tray, in addition to teaspoons, cups and bowls. All these forms are traditionally made from fired ceramics. Diepenbrock is animated as he describes the technical aspects of making the work, especially the process of firing vessels in a wood-burning kiln: "like painting with fire and ash."

"Everything you do influences the final outcome in ways that are impossible to predict," he notes. "Loading the kiln influences the way the ash drifts around in the interior during the firing process. The type of wood you're burning influences the vessel's appearance. The type of ash makes a difference in terms of altering particle size and color," he says. Firing vessels in a wood-burning kiln may take as long as 72 hours, during which the kiln demands skilled round-the-clock supervision. Its temperature, which may range from 1,200 to upwards of 2,500 degrees, needs to be maintained precisely for optimum results.

As the vessels cool, complex glazed surfaces form. "Usually what comes out is a surprise," Diepenbrock says. "Not always good! So many unexpected things happen. Sometimes you don't know the purpose of a pot until it comes into your life."

The tea ceremonies that inspire the artist most directly have been shaped by hundreds of years of Buddhist ritual in China and Japan. But since graduating from Humboldt State University with a degree in art last year, he has had no shortage of opportunities to practice his craft locally. Employed at Fire Arts in Arcata as a ceramics technician, he also fires vessels regularly at several noted area potters' wood-fired kilns, including Thomas Fossier's in McKinleyville, David Zdrazil and Shannon Sullivan's in Myrtletown and Conrad Calimpong's in Ferndale. He credits the camaraderie of the local wood-fired ceramics community and the emphasis placed by area potters on social networks as an inspiration.

In Diepenbrock's eyes, teaware finds its highest purpose when it is used to create communion among two or more people. Any such event, he points out, can be considered a tea ceremony — a way for human beings to be fully present and engaged with one another in real time, with tea and teaware playing key roles as humble but essential mediating agents.

Smooth-surfaced and elegant in contour, the bowls and cups he makes please without presuming to demand. Like a relay runner's baton, they are less important than the event that forms around them; yet without their unobtrusive presence, that event would not occur.

Taking part in a tea ceremony can make you recalibrate your sense of pace and time. The ceremony's events take place at micro scale. Leaves unfold in boiling water. Steam rises. Tiny beads of sublimated moisture accrue on the lip of a stoneware cup. The scent that fills the air is simultaneously peachy, starchy and mossy. It smells both ancient and new.

Diepenbrock uses different styles of tea but often prefers to brew fermented Chinese pu-erh tea in its traditional compressed form. Each tuo cha tablet is a nut-brown puck of fermented camellia sinensis leaves, arrested in some cases on the very cusp of decomposition, then compressed and dried. When these layers begin to unfold in simmering water, the vapors that rise fill the nose with a dark, earthy, mushroom-y smell reminiscent of the forest floor.

Diepenbrock has given a lot of thought to the subject of matching of tea with vessel, not only in terms of appearance but in terms of the way the brewing vessel's materials can affect tea's flavor. Pairing delicate white or oolong teas with fine porcelain ware can bring out subtle aspects of their tastes, he says, while using an ironware teapot can infuse pu-erhs with a mineral tang that accentuates their flavor profiles.

In conversation, Diepenbrock emphasizes the cyclical nature of the various processes involved in his vessels' creation and use. "It's a full circle — the making, the firing and then the use. When you use your own teaware, it's more like a closed circle. When you use vessels other people have made, that opens the circle up. It's a way of transferring energy."

The ritual of tea is social, although not in the same way that Facebook is. Approached with intent, the act of pouring out tea for oneself and a companion can be a way to enter into contemplation of the here and now. It doesn't matter, Diepenbrock said, whether the ceremony is humble or formal. Making a ceremony out of tea can be a way to put quotes around a discrete instance of human exchange. It articulates a space where people can get together in real space and time, leaving their mediating screens and twittering devices temporarily behind.

Joel Diepenbrock's ceramics will be on view at the Sanctuary Arcata, 1301 J St., Arcata through February. The artist hosts a tea ceremony during Arts! Arcata on Friday, Feb. 9 from 5:30 - 9 p.m. For more information call 822-0898 or visit

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Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath is a critic who writes about art, place and culture in Northern California. She lives in Arcata. Follow her on Instagram @gabriellegopinath.

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