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This Kansas City Art Institute Teacher's Tea Time Has Become A 35-Year-Long Conversation

Julie Denesha
Diana Lerma, a senior in the fiber department at the Kansas City Art Institute, chats over a cup of tea with retired professor Jason Pollen. Pollen's teatime visits have helped shape several generations of art students.

Jason Pollen’s colorful wheels of cloth and fluttering fabric mobiles have been exhibited around the world. He retired from teaching in the fiber department at the Kansas City Art Institute in 2010; at 76, he now spends his time creating his own work in a bungalow on Locust Street, just a block from the Art Institute.

His home is filled with the vibrant textiles he creates, inspired by travels to Europe, India and Tibet. This space isn’t a classroom, but it might as well be.

For more than three decades now, young artists and colleagues have continued to gather here every day at four o’clock.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Pollen scoops out several spoonfuls of jasmine green tea into a teapot.

It all began in 1983, as a way to reach out to the shy students in his classroom.

“Some of the students were very, very quiet in critiques and the extroverts, of course, jump right in,” Pollen says. “In talking to these kids individually, I thought well, ‘Why don’t you just come across the street? I’ll make us a cup of tea.’ Then one student would tell another student, usually another introvert."

Eventually those students graduated, but they didn't want to stop talking with Pollen about art and life.

"They’d call and they’d say, ‘Hey can I come over for tea?’ Twenty years later: 'Can I come over for tea?' And that’s the way it is. It started then and it continues today.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
A sewing machine frames Pollen as he works in his studio.

Pollen's light-filled studio is just off the kitchen. A sewing machine dominates a long work table covered with paper and fabric. He's busy creating a series of textile portals and hanging sculptures for a new show that opens February 2 atThe RobertHillestad Textiles Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Diana Lerma, a senior in the fiber department, assists Pollen in his studio and is also a frequent guest at tea time — which might be even more important today than when it began, since technology has changed everyone's lives. Pollen has little patience for the young people who spend time looking at their phones. He designed this space for conversation.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Lerma prepares Pollen's new 'portal' series for an upcoming show in Nebraska.

“I feel like that’s why a lot of the students that come over to your place love your home," Lerma tells Pollen, "because it represents this place where you can come away from studio, away from the academic critique time and have studio talk, talk about what you’re exploring with someone that we can trust.”

Even before cell phones, though, Debra Smith felt the same way about tea with Pollen when she was a student in the 1980s. These days she’s a full-time artist who creates abstract textile works from vintage kimonos at her studio at Studios Inc.downtown in the Crossroads.

Credit Courtesy Debra Smith
Debra Smith (left), in a photo taken with Pollen when she was an Art Institute student in the 1980s, has fond memories of tea time. She is now a professional artist.

“I probably learned more from him after graduating and getting to spend more intimate time in his studio and his space and getting to participate in these teas,” Smith says. “I have stronger memories of those moments than I do as a student at the Art Institute for sure. ”

Smith suggests Pollen also benefits from spending time with young artists.

"One thing they don’t teach you in art school is how absolutely filled with solitude a living, working practicing artist's studio generally is,” Smith says. “It is literally you and the materials and you, your imagination and you making."

The lessons Smith learned in Pollen’s studio live with her to this day.

“He has an impact on people that touches their lives forever,” she says. “It creates a ripple effect of creativity spirit and energy that lives beyond him.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Philip Matthews, a poet and meditation teacher from North Carolina who was visiting the Art Institute, stopped by for a cup of tea and conversation during the fall semester.

But it's not just students who benefit from the conversation. One afternoon visitor is Philip Matthews, a poet and meditation teacher from North Carolina who was a visiting lecturer at the Art Institute during the fall semester, when he taught a professional practice course to seniors in the fiber department.

“There’s a totally different vibe in connecting is somebody’s home and that’s something that Jason does really well,” Matthews says. “That sense of hospitality, that sense of creating an open and safe space for people to come together and interact as equals, that is what it really does.”

By now, it’s tradition. These small gestures of hospitality have added up over the course of a lifetime. Clearly, Jason Pollen is still a teacher at heart.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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