A Tale of Two Teas

19 May

This article is by Carolyn Henderson, the managing half of Steve Henderson Fine Art. She is a Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews and her  freelance writing appears in regional newspapers, online magazines, and her humor blog, Middle-Aged Plague.

Join me for a brief tale of tea, which I assure you ties together at the end with art as neatly as any decent romance novel winds to a happy conclusion:

While we think of tea as a quintessential British drink, in the 19th century, it almost went the way of the dodo bird because the only way to get it was through China.

When access to that country, and its tea plantations, was blocked, British growers imported Chinese tea seeds to India and tried to grow the plant there, without success.

Oddly enough, there was already a tea plant native to the area — the Assam “wild” plant — but people-in-the-know discounted its worth because it wasn’t a “proper” (read “Chinese”) tea plant. Plantation owners ripped out existing fields of wild Assam tea and replaced them with the Chinese variety.

Eventually, however, after a succession of failed Chinese tea plant harvests, some forward thinking growers hybridized the Chinese tea plant with the hardy Assam, and the rest, as they say, is history.

If you drink a brisk black, malty, eye-opening breakfast blend, then you’re drinking some form of an Assam, which, not so oddly, thrives in its native habitat of India. Derivatives of this plant have been exported worldwide, with the result that what we think of as true English tea is grown not only in India, but Indonesia, throughout Southeast Asia, and Africa.

Now let’s think about art:

Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, artists have been convinced that the way to become well known and make a decent living off of their art is to be represented by a major art gallery (preferably in New York City), publicized in a well-known collector’s magazine, or be catapulted to the top of a contemporary Salon society.

Chinese tea.

But for thousands of artists, our access to China and its growing tea plantations is severely limited, and we find ourselves kicking around in the uplands of India, surrounded by wild Assam tea plants. They look like weeds.

And we plant Chinese tea plants on Indian soil: We seek major gallery representation, but those galleries are either 1) closing, 2) limiting new artists, 3) not selling much.

We search for the ethereal collector, but he is 1) demanding name recognition, 2) not buying much, 3) inaccessible to the individual artist.

We hope to be featured in a magazine, but 1) we have to buy a lot of ads to be noticed, 2) we’re one of thousands clamoring for attention, 3) we don’t have the necessary connections.

We enter national shows: 1) Entry  fees add up, and there are only so many slots for entries, 2) Even if the piece gets in, a minimal number will win and receive added recognition (do the math), 3) After shipping, packaging, insurance, and re-shipping, we generally get the piece back. Shows look good on a resume, but sales are nothing to be counted on.

This is brutal, but so were millions of acres of dying Chinese tea plants.

Notice, that in the success story of Assam tea, the Chinese variety was hybridized with the wild version, to create a stronger version of both.

So it can be in our lives as artists: I’m not saying to drop the gallery/art magazine/Salon route — I am saying to not depend upon it exclusively, because this is India, not China, and we live in the 21st century, not the 19th (although anyone who reads their art history quickly realizes that only a few artists succeeded through the traditional routes back then).


None, I’m afraid, because we’re messing around with the two plants ourselves.


They vary with each of us, but we all have esoteric skills and experiences that we can explore to our advantage, and we frequently discount them because they don’t look like they fit into our art marketing game plan.

Do you speak Albanian? Can you knit? Write? Cook? Manage three conversations simultaneously? Grow celery? Remember trivial facts? Parallel park? Do you read physics in your spare time? Are you good with hamsters?

Within your unique individuality is the map you need to travel the road you’re on, and as long as you’re flexible about your destination, you will eventually get somewhere. It just may not be China.

Try this:

1) If an opportunity comes your way, look at it thrice before discarding. As long as it’s legal, honest, and feasible, it’s worth trying.

2) Get really really good at what you do — make sure that the reason you’re not moving forward isn’t because your product falls short.

3) Don’t freak out. There’s only so much that can get done in a day, and we can’t all be experts at everything. Gravitate toward what feels right and natural, and explore its possibilities.

Don’t be afraid to walk a very narrow path. You have no idea where it will take you.
This article appears courtesy of FineArtViews by FASO Artist Websites,
a free email newsletter about art, marketing, inspiration and fine living for artists,
collectors and galleries (and anyone else who loves art).

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Tea by the Sea by the Norwegian Artist, Steve Henderson



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