Talking with our September Teafluencer, Marianne Tolosa, is a little bit like enjoying a cup of tea. Soothing and inspiring, contemplative and grateful. Once you see her art and read her story, we think you’ll see what we’re talking about.
Simply stated, Marianne draws inspiration for her art from life. There isn’t anything around her that is too small or too grand to set her mind churning. From Japan to France to her own backyard, Marianne soaks up her surroundings and lets her creative thoughts flow into her work. Also, at least a couple of times a day she lets tea flow into her work, which just happens to be beautifully hand-crafted ceramic mugs. Lucky her.
Enjoy getting to know Marianne Tolosa and discover the inspiration behind her art and her thoughts on the role tea plays in our lives.
Harney: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, educational background, where you live, family, etc.
Marianne: I went to a small, private high school in Washington, DC where creativity wasn't only encouraged but celebrated. My parents were also very supportive of the arts, so I can't remember a time that I wasn't drawing or painting in my spare time as I grew up.
After graduating from high school, I got my BA in Oil Painting from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, VA – and it feels like I've lived 10 lifetimes since then! After college, I taught English overseas, then completed an MA in Interior Design and spent five years working in the coffee industry. Then I got married, taught college, fostered a teenage girl for a year, worked as a freelance graphic designer, and now I run my own pottery business out of our home!
It's been a winding road to get here, but I feel like I've ended up exactly where I'm supposed to be. My husband and I live in northern Virginia with two cats and our mastiff, Sweetie, about four miles from where I grew up. I get to spend most of my time in the ceramics studio, and I live every day filled with gratitude that this is exactly where I want to be.
Harney: You say you’ve had two homes: Virginia and Japan. How did you end up in both of those places?
Marianne: Coming to Virginia is the start of my story. I was born to a single, teenage mother in another state and immediately put up for adoption. When I think about how differently my life could have ended up, it gives me deep faith that God has a special plan for my life – He literally picked me up out of one place as an infant and put me into a completely different one. I was given a loving family that would encourage me and spur me on to be my best, opening up opportunities that I may never have been exposed to in a different family.
I see my time living in Japan – about two years – as another chapter in my story. I spent a summer there during college and loved it so much that I returned for two more years after I finished my degree to teach English. I also continued to paint and made pottery at the studio of a local ceramic artist. There isn't anywhere quite like it - it's where I learned to have a quietness of spirit and an appreciation of imperfection that I hope has carried into my art.
Harney: When did you start working with ceramics? What got you interested in that medium?
Marianne: I was working towards my BA in Oil Painting when I took my first ceramics class. It was the fall of my junior year, and I had just realized that I wanted to major in art instead of pre-vet biology (which is the degree that I'd spent my first two years of college working toward). You were required to take classes across multiple mediums for the art degree, and because I was behind in my major I had to take whatever art classes I could that fit in my schedule that semester. Aside from an independent study in oil painting, Printmaking and Ceramics 101 were the two classes that lined up with my schedule.
The first half of the semester was terrible – I hated hand-building. Pinch pots, coils, slabs... coming from a background of oil painting I felt like I was wasting my time with a “lower” art, and I remember telling a friend that I felt like I was being forced to glue macaroni to a can when I wanted to be making masterpieces in the painting studio! But then we learned how to throw on the wheel. It was like something inside of me shifted into place, and I found myself spending literal days in the studio, throwing pot after pot, practicing, practicing, practicing – to the point that my hands ached at night, and my professor pulled me aside and explained what carpal tunnel was. But I was completely hooked, and there was no turning back!
Now I find it very humorous that not only did my foray into ceramics began because of a scheduling conflict, but also that I spend much more time hand-building each individual flower for my pieces than I spend throwing on the wheel.
Harney: It only takes a minute or two to figure out that you love to travel. Tell us about your favorite places, and why they’re your favorite.
Marianne: It's so hard to pick a favorite place! But if I had to choose I would give two answers – Kyoto, Japan, and Normandy, France.
Kyoto is at once ancient and modern, and it feels like there could be something special around every corner. There's a piece of me that is always looking for beauty in unexpected places – it’s the same part of me that loves picking through estate sales and antique stores -- and Kyoto is the perfect place for the person who is looking for secret treasures. An alley might end where it looks like it ends, or it might swerve to the right and lead to a printmaking shop that has been in someone's family for five generations. By following lesser-taken paths in the city, we found temple gardens, small pottery shops, bubbling canals and hidden cafés in the most unlikely of places.
Normandy has a more obvious but no less amazing beauty to it. It has the little town of Giverny, where Monet lived, nestled along the Seine river. We visited his garden in May, and the flowers were in full bloom. I vividly remember the peony blossoms there – they were larger than dinner plates! The town itself is small, and as you stroll through it you're surrounded by small galleries, cafés covered in climbing roses and tall stone walls protecting the little gardens of the residents. Its overall aura is both serene and lively. Normandy is also home to the Palace of Versailles, which is one of the single largest influences in my work. Not the rooms you would see on your main tour, but the side rooms where there's a bit of crumbling marble alongside golden trim and a window that looks out over the garden – that's the space where I wish I could set up a work table and just stay for a month.
Harney: Tell us how the places you’ve visited inspire and inform your art.
Marianne: Part of why I love to travel is because visiting new places takes you outside of yourself and realigns your spirit in a way that few things can accomplish. I can become so wrapped up in the day-to-day sphere of work, social media, running errands, meeting up with friends, and other obligations... but when I travel it's like all of that fades away.
I have a memory of sitting next to my husband in a small moss garden in Japan. I was watching an ant make its way across the little dips and bends along its path; it would disappear from my sight underneath a piece of moss. I thought it had gone underground for good only for it to pop back into sight six inches from where it had disappeared. Travel affords me the mental peace and clarity to stop and spend a moment lost in something simple, like watching an ant travel from one place to the next with no particular purpose.
Also, when I create I constantly need to remind myself that creativity isn't about a specific outcome – it's about a journey. Like watching that ant, I may lose sight of where I think a piece is going, but if I keep leaning in the path will reappear... and while it may not go where I expected that's probably not a bad thing. So I guess the short answer is that traveling has taught me to see creativity as a loose process, and to let my work change and morph without adhering too tightly to what I want the outcome to be!
Harney: Another place you’ve said you find inspiration is in the garden, and your work certainly reflects that with its beautiful florals and earth/sky colors. How does what you experience in a garden transform into what you create?
Marianne: I could sit in our backyard watching the bees and butterflies pull nectar from our sunflowers and roses for hours. The garden is reflected in my work in obvious ways, as you mentioned, through florals and color choices that reflect nature.
But in the same way that a garden pulls at your soul to pause for a moment and appreciate its beauty, I want my work to have a quality about it that pulls the user into stillness. I want the texture, pattern and form of my mugs to be a physical reminder to meditate and pray. If my work can help the user pause for a moment, then I feel like my work has accomplished more than just being a pretty thing. Like a garden, it will have brought life and joy.
Harney: What’s your process like? How do you move from inspiration to finished product?
Marianne: Each piece starts on my wedging table. I add colorants to my porcelain at this stage if I'm looking for a specific color, or other times I opt to keep it simple and white. I then throw 20-30 mug forms on the wheel and pull handles for them. These pieces are what I'll spend the next two to three weeks working on.
I store my mugs in plastic sweater boxes as they dry, which lengthens the amount of time that I can work on them. Because of this I take a lot of time with each piece, spending up to four hours with my hands on each mug that I make. I think this part of my process comes from my past as an oil painter – you can rework oil paint for a long time, and if you mess up before it's dry you can wipe the canvas clean. Similarly, I like my mugs to be thoughtfully, slowly made, allowing time for my vision to develop as I work on each piece. I honestly spend a whole lot of time just holding and staring at each piece, mentally adding and subtracting bits and pieces to them before making any tangible alterations. My hope is that the amount of time I hold them in my hands will translate into a mug that feels intimate and precious in the hands of their future owner.
Harney: Is there a favorite part of the process, something that you lose yourself in?
Marianne: I think that the imagining of what each mug could be is where I get the most lost – in a good way. This includes parts of the process like wandering through our yard, deciding which small flowers and leaves to impress into the clay for texture, or deciding where to attach the handle depending on where the color swirls or the way the mug body bends. These small decisions that will create the whole are my favorite (and also the most challenging) part of the process.
Harney: You also have experience working in the coffee industry, and you’ve been a “cupper” as you say, or a taster of both coffee and tea. What role has tea played in your life?
Marianne: Tea is, to me, a drink of togetherness and hospitality. It may seem like a stretch, but I really think that tea is a drink that can transcend culture, differences and language. The South has sweet tea. Japan has the tea ceremony. Traveling in Kenya, we were woken up every morning with black tea. Another time I was walking along the street in rural Indonesia when a woman whom I'd never met began beckoning me into her home – we couldn't speak to one another because I didn't speak Bahasa Indonesia, and she didn't speak English - but she served me sugar tea as we smiled at each other, and she sent me on my way refreshed.
Recently I was looking at a ceramic teapot at the store when a woman from Morocco began talking to me about the role of mint tea in her culture. I definitely think tea can break down walls and create companionship between people who don't seem to have anything in common. It's a very special drink!
Harney: On your Instagram page, you wrote that you create “wheel-thrown pottery for coffee and tea rituals.” What kind of coffee and tea rituals do you enjoy? And how would you hope your customers use your cups?
Marianne: Every morning I make myself a latte in one of my mugs, and I have one cup of tea every afternoon and one before bed each night. I call it a “ritual” - and it is. There's nothing quite like grinding my own espresso, steaming my own milk, and then pouring it together into a mug I made from earth and fire. The same goes for my afternoon tea. It's my time to pause as the water boils, take stock of my day and smell the aroma of the tea I've chosen as it steeps.
Harney: Just for fun: we know you have a dog and two cats. Cats are generally very curious and can be a bit ornery at times. How is it to spin pottery with cats around? Are they interested? Do the occasional claw marks make their way into wet clay?
Marianne: In all honesty: YES! I can't count the number of times I've found paw prints on my work! They're constantly climbing onto my lap, walking across my workspace and playing with my tools... but it's pretty adorable, so I can't be mad at them. Sweetie (our mastiff) on the other hand – she just sleeps on my feet while I work and hasn't broken anything yet.
Harney: We already know you love tea. What are your favorites and how do you take them?
Marianne: I have a different tea for each time of day – strong black teas with a splash of honey are my go-to for the morning if I'm opting for tea instead of coffee. At midday I enjoy green tea – I try to whip up some matcha at least twice a week, and I also love a strong sencha or genmaicha. Bedtime is generally my wildcard tea. I love cinnamon tea, peach tea and lavender tea at bedtime, but I have several other herbal teas that I occasionally go for instead.
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea (or anything you’ve been wanting to try)?
Marianne: I would (and do) drink Hot Cinnamon Spice anytime day or night (thank goodness you have a decaf version!). I honestly have at least one cup of it every day. I also adore your sencha and matcha teas. I'm currently working through a tin of Matcha Senjunomukashi. I just had my first cup of Japanese Whisky today, and I think it will be perfect for the crisp fall days that are coming.
Now that you’ve read about where Marianne finds her inspiration, we know you’re dying to see her art. Check out her beautiful ceramics at her website (and you can see a picture of Sweetie on her Instagram page, too). Also, we think keeping the cat paw prints on her tea cups is a good idea as well-- just sayin’. We appreciate Marianne’s time and willingness to tell us her story. All photography has been provided by Marianne.