When is a Tea Kettle a Paradox? When On Display at the Morikami

Tom Gregersen is the Senior Curator and Cultural Director at The Morikami Museum, and after 30+ years of selecting and displaying the Museum’s exhibitions, he’s the resident expert on all things Japanese art, antiquities and artifacts. So it says something that he felt a “sense of discovery” about the upcoming exhibit, “Elegance in Iron: The Art of the Japanese Tetsubin.” The show opens Tuesday and runs through Dec. 6, 2009.

It features more than 90 tetsubin, or Japanese cast-iron teakettles, from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Iron teakettles were a big deal back in the day because they symbolized a break with the Japanese traditional way of preparing tea, instead opting to prepare it the Chinese way by steeping tea leaves. Oh, the humanity!

Tom’s sense of discovery came as he drafted the text for the corresponding catalog (on sale in the Museum Store for $25). The teakettles’ paradoxes? 1) They aren’t as old as they appear. Their “aged” features of chips and nicks were done on purpose to give them a well-worn look by the craftsman. 2) Some of the kettles sport Chinese motifs, even though they aren’t … well… Chinese. Again, just for looks. 3) They were only used for 150 years – a short period of time in Japanese history.

Tom himself is a bit of a paradox. With a Danish last name and no visible vestige of Japanese heritage, I wondered what kept him immersed in and curious about Asian art and history. He was introduced to Japan by a high school girlfriend, who had traveled there, and he ended up studying it in college, falling in love and making a career of it.

And the girl? He married Sandy about 37 years ago.

Elegance in Iron catalog cover
Elegance in Iron catalog cover

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