Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tacoma’s Museum of Glass: World Class

Ever think of museums as static, slightly boring places?

Down on the Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma, in a scenic post-industrial setting, the Museum of Glass is many things, but certainly not boring. It’s a dynamic, education-focused place with mind-bending glass art, videos, glass blowing demonstrations, a great café and store, and, occasionally, karaoke in “the cone.”

With Tacoma-born celebrity glass artist Dale Chihuly and the Pilchuck Glass School leading the charge, the Pacific Northwest studio glass art scene vaulted onto the world stage in the early 1980s. Since then, visiting and aspiring glass artists have been drawn to our region. What better way to celebrate our glass art than spending an afternoon at the Museum of Glass?

For my sister’s birthday, we take a family field trip there for lunch, exploring and hitting the afternoon show in the Hot Shop (the cone structure that houses an amphitheater for glass blowing demonstrations).

It’s a gorgeous sunny July day, so we grab lunch in Gallucci's Glass Café and eat outside on the spacious patio overlooking the waterway. Sandwiches, pasta, and salads are all pretty good, but we decide my sister’s pasta dish is the tastiest.

I stroll down to the waterway for a look. The overall setting is a stunning marriage of a revitalized, formerly industrial waterway, public art, brilliant use of open space, and architectural savvy. I hate to sound like a snob, but it’s hard to believe we’re in Tacoma and not somewhere more cosmopolitan. Wait–I guess that means Tacoma is cosmo!

I’m excited to see the Preston Singletary exhibit. I’ve seen and been inspired by his work, which fuses his Northwest Coast Indian (Tlingit) heritage with contemporary art in glass. In the main gallery, we browse past his beautifully rendered pieces that replicate traditional Tlingit art forms in glass. Classic masks, cedar-bark hats, argillite bowls, bent wood boxes, and baskets are all here, but luminously transformed by the medium. (Photos not allowed in the exhibit but here’s a “basket” in the gift shop.)

Of course we have to cruise through the gift shop, where the offerings range from relatively inexpensive hand-blown glass orbs to pieces by various glass artists.

Then we head across the open lobby to the Hot Shop inside the 90-foot-tall cone for the afternoon glassmaking demonstration in this state-of-the art glass-blowing studio. This week’s visiting artist is Richard Craig Meitner, all the way from the Netherlands.

While the Hot Shop team glass artists expertly move molten hot glass on the end of metal rod in and out of the glowing red ovens, our fun interpreter Heather Cornelius warms up the crowd. “Who’d like to sing along to the music?” she says, waving the microphone in hand.

A woman in the row in front of me volunteers, and lucky her. After she warbles out a few a lines of “I love Rock ‘n Roll,” with the audience clapping and guest artist Richard dancing along, she is presented with a hand-blown goblet. (Note to self –next time I go, be brave and volunteer!)

After about 30 minutes of careful glass work, watching the glowing red orb of glass at the end of the rod get larger and larger, Heather tells us the excitement is about to pick up.

We watch rapt as Ben plunges the rod back into the oven, moves in close, starts spinning. Suddenly the globe flattens out to a large disc. He pulls it out, Alex makes a precise hit, and Gabe, dressed like an astronaut out for a lunar walk, grabs the disc with gloved mitts and walks quickly over to a cooling rack. Viola!

Since it is a beautiful afternoon, we shuffle out to go cross the Chihuly Bridge of Glass that spans a highway and railroad tracks between the Museum of Glass and the Washington State History Museum, next to the old Union train station. The bridge is of full of gorgeous glass pieces beside and above us.

We spent about three hours at the museum, but you could make it a longer day. Rent kayaks and explore the waterway, visit the State History Museum and Tacoma Art Museum, or walk along the waterfront.

When You Go
Click here for directions and parking information. The museum is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. We parked in the garage beneath the museum. Admission of $12 for an adult, but free the third Thursday of each month from 5 to 8 p.m.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Zen Dog Studio Teahouse: Please Pour More Pu-er

I’ve just become a convert.

Unlike my brief stint at Bible camp where I was the only kid who didn’t cry from the spirit of Jesus (“What’s wrong with me?” I asked the counselor), I’ve been moved to tears by sipping a beautifully crafted, complex Purple Tip pu-er tea at Zen Dog Studio Teahouse in Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood.

Since I first blogged about Zen Dog a year and a half ago, I’ve spent many hours here, sipping tea with Zen Dog tea master Larry Murphy, trying his different teas, having great conversations. He has become a treasured friend, and he’s introduced me to others here who have also become my friends. And I bring my friends here. Call it tea love.

At first all I wanted was jasmine pearl, a refined but familiar floral green tea. Then I slowly worked through various oolongs—a richer, fermented tea—and recently settled on the Zen Dog House Roast as my new favorite tea I take home for my morning pot. (Larry roasts this oolong in his upstairs studio, which releases a heavenly aroma.)

But I initially resisted pu-er (also spelled puerh), which Bon Appetit magazine called “the tea for coffee lovers” because of its rich, strong, earthy flavor compared to many teas. Never been a coffee drinker myself.

Today we’re sitting in front of Larry’s alter to tea, a shiny, smooth camphor wood table as he carefully unwraps the aged brick of tea and slices off a bit for brewing.

“This tea is from a 500-year-old tree in Yunnan Province,” says Larry. He gets his fine teas from small estates in southern China, where tea growing and processing is a high art.

While outside it’s almost 90 degrees, inside Larry heats the pure water he’s collected from a local artesian well to a light boil. With the front door open to let in the breeze, we hear wind chimes bump against each other, ringing softly.

As we wait a moment for the tea to steep, Larry tells us “Pu-er opens the heart.” Have I perhaps been afraid of this tea unleashing my tightly held emotions?

After pouring the first brew over a fat little ceramic Buddha on the table, we sip the next deep amber brew from small brown Yixiang clay cups. When she finishes her first cup, Jillian exclaims, “What a quick hit!”

Larry leans back and smiles. “This tea is so light it almost disappears and vaporizes on the tongue. It’s effervescent, silky smooth.”

I’m just surprised that I like what I taste. The tea is light and smooth, not bitter or astringent like I’d expected. But underneath the pleasant taste lurks a mysterious, ungraspable something else. It’s of the earth, but also sunshine and rain and the sea. There’s more. I can’t pin it down.

“This is good stuff!” I say with a smile.

Pu-er is prized in China, and Americans are just starting to become aware of it. And like a fine aged wine, a premium pu-er from a wild and ancient tree that has been processed and stored well is expensive and much sought after by tea connoisseurs. People even buy pu-er as an investment.

We sip multiple brews from the same tea leaves, talking, laughing, then being quiet and noticing the sensations in our mouth and body that this tea evokes.

“I’m feeling a direct connection to Qi, the universal life force,” says Larry. “There’s more energy with this pu-er (a 2004 brick) than the 2007, but there’s also a deep stillness.”

I know what he means.

Jillian and I feel it in the back of our throats, and then I feel a tingling around my nose and forehead. “The third eye,” says Larry.

I consider myself a pragmatist in general, but as I’m driving home I suddenly feel a tightening in the back of my throat. Then tears start forming in my eyes. I’m not thinking about anything in particular, but I feel moved.

Is this the heart-opening from pu-er that Larry talks about?

With surprise, I realize it must be. Tea!

When You Go
Zen Dog Studio Teahouse is on 85th Street in Crown Hill, about 6 blocks west of 15th Avenue Northwest. Look for the big Chinese lanterns hanging in the trees and bushes around the house. We drank the 2004 purple-tip pu-er. If you’re not in Seattle, you can buy Zen Dog’s tea online.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Kayaking to Yellow Island: Wildflowers and Solitude

One of the many things I love about sea kayaking in Washington’s San Juan Islands is paddling past scenic little islands clustered close together. One of my favorite places for island hopping is the Wasp Islands within the greater San Juan archipelago.

Sandwiched between large San Juan Island to the southwest and Orcas to the north, the Wasps are somewhat protected from the strong currents and southerly and northerly winds that blow through the region. (Although not completely protected, of course.)

During a recent weekend trip to Orcas Island, we paddled out to Yellow Island on the western edge of the Wasp Islands. This grassy, 11-acre island is a Nature Conservancy preserve famous for its brilliant display of native wildflowers each April and May. I haven’t made it there at the peak of wildflower season yet, but over Memorial Day enough flowers were still out for a lovely display.

Like most of the San Juan Islands, the Wasps are rocky outcrops covered with mixed forest of conifers such as Douglas fir, deciduous trees like big-leaf maples, and evergreen madrones. However, Yellow Island is a notable exception. It’s about the only island that was never grazed by livestock, leaving the native vegetation relatively free of invasive and non-natives. Ethnobotanists believe that the local Indians periodically cleared the island with burns to promote the growth of camas root, which was an important food source.

The day we kayak to Yellow Island, pewter gray skies, a smattering of rain, and a steady wind from the west keep things interesting (but not too exciting). We take off from the marina in Deer Harbor, where for a fee you can launch and use the hose at the dock to clean up afterwards. (For a longer trip, many kayakers camp overnight at nearby Jones Island and pass through the Wasps as a side trip.)

After scooting under the dock and out beyond the marina, we paddle about 20 to 25 minutes southwest out of the harbor until we reach Reef Island, watching out for motorboat traffic as we cross North Pass. Within the reefs and rock outcrops, we seek protection from the wind.

Passing along a rocky shoreline, I spy a little furry mammal scurrying up and out of sight. I think it’s a weasel, but Rich guessed wild mink. He’s right.

We stop for lunch at a beach on the west side of McConnell Island, making sure to stay below the tide line since most of the island shorelines are privately owned. As we munch, right across the passage just a quarter mile or so southwest is Yellow Island. We grab lunch now because we’ve heard food isn’t allowed on Yellow Island to prevent contaminating its fragile ecosystem.

As we head to the landing beach just below the wooden cabin on the south side of the Yellow Island, a group of kayakers is leaving. Only six visitors are allowed on the island between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Whew! Good timing. Unfortunately the tide is out and the landing beach is nasty, full of large rocks covered with slick wet seaweed.

Within a couple minutes of our arrival, Nature Conservancy steward Phil Green comes down to greet us as we’re moving our kayaks above the waterline. He’s bundled up in a fleece parka and knit cap, binoculars hanging down the front of his chest.

“Hi,” he says with a friendly smile. Phil’s face is pleasantly weathered with lines that crinkle around his eyes when he smiles, and a bit of gray stubble covers his chin. His demeanor is calm and relaxed. This is a man in tune with his environment.

Phil lives on the island in the equally weather-worn cabin, greeting visitors and carefully observing and noting the island’s flora and fauna. He’s also a font of information. “See those flattened areas of grass?” he asks when we’re near the top of the island on the loop trail. “That’s from otters. They breed here on the island. So do the wild mink.”

We don’t want to stay too long since we see another clump of dark clouds moving toward us from the west, so we walk quickly along the trail. Bright orange Indian paintbrush, wild Nootka roses, and numerous other late blooming wildflowers are sprinkled along the trail and meadows.

I wish we could linger longer. As we launch our kayaks back into the water, the wind has increased and we get swept quickly into the current.

Heading back, we angle east over to the Crane Island shoreline. On the north side of Crane, we’re out of the wind, and I continue to narrow Pole Pass between Crane and Orcas islands. On a map, Pole Pass is so tiny it looks like the waist of an hourglass.

It looks like an easy few strokes across the pass, but the current rips through here, squeezed by the narrow passage. We get carried back west a ways before we're completely clear of the current.

About 3 hours after we put in, we’re back at Deer Harbor. If it wasn’t windy and rainy, we would have stayed longer. But I’m happy. Any time I kayak in the San Juan Islands is a good time.

When You Go
Here is a map of the Wasp Islands, showing Yellow Island. Although the wildflowers peak in the spring, it’s still a worthwhile stop any time of year for the views and a chance to chat with Phil. Shearwater and other outfitters in the San Juans lead guided kayak trips to the Wasp Islands.