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A Spot of Tea 

These pots at Philabaum Glass Gallery aren't for tea; they're for art

Tom Philabaum learned the English way of drinking tea when he went to the mother country in 1975, to train a paraplegic to swim the English Channel.

That's a whole other story--Philabaum was once a champion swimmer--but the point here is he learned to drink tea the right way, black and strong, with plenty of milk.

"I've always been an Anglophile, and a tea-o-phile," he says. "My mother's people, the Peabodys, were big tea drinkers."

There was a dissident grandpa on his father's side, a Scotsman who loved his coffee. He made it in a glass coffee pot, and the future glass artist "watched it percolate. I thought, 'How can he do that in glass?'"

Fast forward to 2005. Philabaum, now a nationally known glass artist, lives his life in easy compromise between the two sides of the family, starting his morning with coffee and easing into tea in the afternoon, savoring matte, green tea and Earl Grey at teatime. Right now, with the teapot show Spouting Off Again! on exhibit at his contemporary glass gallery at St. Philip's Plaza, tea is ascendant.

Thirty-three teapots, handmade by 11 artists from around the country, have taken over a corner of the sleek white-and-glass space. Some are made of glass, to be sure, but others are earthenware or porcelain, and some are adorned with wire and beads.

"I've been wanting to do multimedia for a long time," concedes Philabaum, who has a glass studio and school downtown, as well as the gallery uptown. "I get a little pigeon-holed."

He seized on the idea for Spouting Off last February in Baltimore, at the American Craft Council show, which he attends each year in search of new artists to exhibit. He had done an all-glass teapot show a few years before, and he was inspired anew when he saw "so many inventive, cool teapots."

To be sure, these are not teapots that would have graced the Peabodys' table. These teapots conjure up aliens and anteaters, morph into circus tents and gas pumps. A flying Jesus, arms flung wide, is the soaring spout of Laura Jean McLaughlin's earthenware "Chicken Angel Teapot." A baby-faced angel head is the lid, and the sides of the pot are incised with black-and-white, Keith Haring-style drawings of human figures and a tiny chicken-headed child.

If McLaughlin's Jesus teapot gets the nod for most surprising (give us this day our daily tea?), Christian Thirion's are the most jaunty. Primary color designs in yellow and red swirl across his two blown-glass entries, one tall and slim, the other classically squat and round. Tiny teacups and saucers serve as the lids, perched charmingly at an angle, like straw hats.

Not that anybody is going to be drinking out of these cups. Most of the teapots are nonfunctional pieces of art, totally unsuited to brewing tea. And apart from this omission--of serious import to serious tea drinkers--each piece has all the teapot's essential parts. Every pot has a spout, a lid, a handle and a bowl, though they're sometimes so altered you're not even going to think about looking for the Lipton's.

Take Wes Hunting's "Gas Pump." He's conflated the teapot essentials with those of the gas dispenser. A wonder in blown glass in dark opaque colors, his piece features a cylindrical black pump (serving as the pot), three tiny gray tires (the lid), a long charcoal-colored hose (the spout) and a small handle. "Gas Pump" demonstrates just how adept glass artists have become with their versatile--and difficult--medium.

Paul Counts also sticks with pure glass, but his is shiny and translucent. "Circus Teapot" is a jolly affair with streamers colored in yellow, blue and pink, billowing down the sides of the pot. Harry Stuart's equally cheery "Opaque Teapot" is also pure blown glass. Styled a bit like Aladdin's lamp, its sloping sides are divided into geometric designs of vivid color: orange, lime, yellow. Stephan J. Cox's three blown glass pots have tiny poles and giant legs. Set together on one pedestal, they look like aliens doing battle with one another.

Moving into multimedia, Elaine Hyde goes positively jewel-like in her three tiny teapots, in blown glass and sterling silver. Just inches high, "Teapot #193 Red" is a gorgeous cylinder in painterly red glass, shot through with a stripe of blue-green, and topped by a shimmering silver lid and three red glass beads.

Laura Peery works with traditional porcelain, but in her hands, it looks like leather. Flaps of clay are overlapped and "stitched" like shoe leather along the sides of her "Rose and Vine Teapot." Shaped more like a tall coffee pot than a classic teapot, it has pink flowers snaking up its sides.

Porcelain artist Susan Filley also goes fancy with "Figure Series Teapot, Gray." It's tall and nearly flat, with the air of an attenuated anteater. But her "Green Matte Teapot, Round" comes closest of any in the show to a real teapot. Glazed in a nice mottled blue-green, it's fat and round, with a long graceful spout and a big, curved handle. Its wild companions in Spouting Off may not be everyone's cup of tea, but this classic entry surely would be.

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