I first got to know Liz Steel last year when she dropped me a note asking about Singapore teahouses after visiting my tea blog. Upon visiting her website, I discovered a treasure trove of beautiful, intricate sketches capturing her life, both as an architect in Sydney and as an avid traveller. What caught my eye the most were her detailed tea sketches – you can really tell how much she loves her cup of tea no matter which part of the world she is in! I also think it is a wonderful idea to sketch while drinking tea – even though I used to flunk my art classes, I’m pretty excited to try this out one day. At the same time, I thought doing a little Q&A session with Liz was necessary to introduce this artistic tea lover to the T Ching community!
How did you fall in love with tea?
My love of tea started in my teenage years when my best friend bought me a tin of Fortnum and Mason Earl Grey tea because I had a migraine. She thought the bergamot might ease the headache – it didn’t, but it did get me hooked on fancy tea (well, I thought Earl Grey was fancy back then!). This same friend also gave me a lovely china teacup as a gift, so from the early days, tea and nice china have been intimately connected. Now sketching has been added to my whole experience of drinking tea!
It is hard to put into a few words why I love tea so much – refined and exquisite flavors, refreshing, relaxing, variety (there is a tea to suit whatever mood I am in); each cup of tea that I make for myself seems to be an event. Drinking tea is normally the moment when I slow down, or when I want to start something – the tea helps me focus and get into it.
How about your sketching habit: when did you start and what motivates you to chronicle all these details about your life?
I started sketching six years ago – Australia Day 2007. I wanted to sketch while I travelled and as I had a trip planned that September, I was determined to start training for it by sketching my daily life. The training became an end in itself. Although I do travel a lot, I now see my daily life as an adventure worthy enough to be captured in my sketchbook as well.
I get a huge adrenaline rush out of sketching. It gets my creative juices pumping in a big way. Sketching on location, out in public, is such a rich way to record the moment. It makes you slow down and appreciate the moment, but it also often creates the moment as well. While you are sketching, amazing things happen.
What about sketching your tea moments? How do they stand out from the rest of your sketches?
I am a very non-stop person – I never slow down – and even if I am physically not active, my mind is always buzzing. One of the rare moments in my day when I do relax is with my evening cup of tea and I often sketch this. Drawing my cup of tea while I am drinking it is my way to chill – sketching the moment makes the tea-drinking experience richer.
As I have a nice selection of fancy china cups to choose from, I love pairing my tea with my china. I love the structure and pattern of the cups and because of the relaxed state I am in when I drink my tea, these “tea cup sketches” are some of my best work.
When I travel, I also never stop – rushing from here to there, trying to sketch each moment like I used to do when I photographed my adventures. Visiting a tearoom is one of the few times I slow down. The tea and food revive me, and the sketching is always lots of fun.
As the most important aspect of tea for me is “the event,” being able to sketch it records the moment for me. If I am given a nice tea, or even an ordinary teabag tea in a nice cup, I feel a compulsion to sketch it. I never feel this way with a coffee!
Tell us about your favorite tea experiences.
2009: UK Roadtrip
It was my first big solo overseas trip and I drove all around the UK for four weeks on my own. I did a lot of research on various tearooms to visit – often going slightly out of my way to visit them. One morning as I was driving north to Scotland, I stopped at the tearoom at Earl Grey’s House (the grand house of the man behind the famous tea blend). I was the only one there as they had just opened, but while I was sketching away, I looked up to see a whole line of staff walking out of the kitchen to see what I was doing. I ended up talking to all of them, and getting a photo of them all with Borromini (my little travelling companion – a teddy bear). As I was leaving, I was given the guidebook for the gardens associated with the house. I realized that when you stop to sketch your tea, amazing stuff always happens.
I had a list of teahouses to check out, but hadn’t done much research on them. I turned up at Teasmith and quickly realized that this wasn’t the place to ask for an Earl Grey with scones! Sitting at a tea bar, I was treated to a modern-day tea ceremony and this was my first real detailed introduction into the world of floral oolongs. I bought a sampler of oolongs to take home with me and then I really got hooked on oolongs!
I recently did a two-week trip to Singapore where I got to check out some teahouses. I had high tea at the Tian Fu Tea Room on Christmas Day by myself, but was soon made to feel like part of the family by the staff who celebrated this festive occasion with me.
The next day, I met up with some local sketchers for some tea appreciation. We spent many hours in Tea Chapter – sketching, talking, and drinking tea – this was my first real experience of the Chinese tea ceremony and we all really got into it. It was great to experience the richness of a single tea (Golden Cassia) through its various brews in the one sitting. We ended the day with a white tea at the Yixing Xuan Teahouse. I really want to buy a Chinese tea set now! I couldn’t sleep that night – I calculated that I must have drunk 70 small cups of Chinese tea!
In your opinion, what is the relationship between tea and art?
Art is all about elevating the everyday into a memorable event while drinking tea is all about creating a ceremony around a seemingly simple beverage. Everyone has his or her own special way to drink a cup of tea just as everyone who picks up a pencil, pen, or brush will make a unique mark on the page that no one else can.
I would encourage everyone to have a go at sketching their next cup of tea! Don’t worry about wonky circles; just enjoy trying to capture the experience!