Meet The Artist: Nhu-Phuong of Decoding Tea

Meet The Artist: Nhu-Phuong of Decoding Tea

We’re big fans of our Decoding Tea calendars, made by our talented friend, Nhu-Phuong. We interviewed her with the questions below to go deeper into her artistic inspiration and life story.

Q: Tell us about what inspires you most about tea

A: Tea is so multifaceted that it keeps me constantly curious and my research spirit wide awake and growing. I get excited when tasting teas; good ones take me on fabulously fragrant flavor journeys. Tea feeds my brain, senses, and soul.

It is amazing that just this one plant - the Camellia sinensis - has fascinated us humans for several thousands of years. Tea covers a broad range of subjects like biology, chemistry, agriculture, neuro gastronomy, social psychology, culture, history, art, and so much more.

Finding ways to share my passion for tea and tea knowledge keeps me energized, too.

Q. How did you begin your journey photographing tea and working with it as an element of your art?

A. My journey in photographing tea started 15 years ago while living and working in China as an engineer in Project Management. One day I realized I was living in a tea wonderland with access to excellent teas at every corner that made my taste buds dance! Lush green tea mountains rich in culture were just a short travel away! During numerous trips to tea regions throughout China – such as to the traditional villages of Dong Ting Mountain surrounded by Lake Tai, famous for Bi Luo Chun (a spiral-shaped green tea), or to the micro tea gardens of the rocky Wu Yi Mountains, where Yan Cha Wu Long / Oolong (Cliff Tea) originates from, or to the remote tea mountains Bu Lang and Jing Mai in Yunnan well-known for old-growth Pu Er and many other tea mountains – I always had my camera with me. I loved talking with the locals and documenting the abundance of different tea crafting styles that result in visually intriguing colors and shapes  - e.g., green, dark, flat, spiral, twisted, and in flavor profiles ranging from vegetal to floral, fruity, and more. I shared my passion for educational videos on YouTube, and when I moved to New York several years later, my desire to share knowledge about tea grew further.

Photography is a great way to distinguish different styles and qualities of tea. How does a green tea look different from a Wu Long (Oolong)? How does a Dan Cong Wu Long look different from a Yan Cha Wu Long? What do the corresponding tea liquors look like?  What do good quality teas look like? Moreover, whole-leaf teas are so pretty - true art by themselves. I got obsessed with getting as close as possible to the visual core of tea, so I began to care about f-stop settings and the right frame on my camera, perfect lighting and editing software, things that had never crossed my mind before.

And that’s how later, in cooperation with Shunan and Tea Drunk, several photography and educational projects came to life, always keeping in mind what fellow tea lovers might like to see, such as the behind-the-scenes of tea picking and crafting or creating a catalog of beautiful macro pictures of various tea styles showcasing their variety in their different states: dry, wet, liquor, brewing. All are documented in tea study materials created for fellow tea lovers.

By founding Decoding Tea, I keep following my mission to help tea lovers to become tea connoisseurs. I believe that the combination of visual tea aesthetics with tea knowledge makes studying tea much more appealing. Vivid visuals can convey more than a thousand words and are the best friend of dry textbook knowledge.

Q. What was your process for creating the calendar?

A. To understand tea, we need to understand the source of all tea - the Camellia sinensis plant. So I bought a tea plant to grow, observe and document at home. I took pictures of its growing cycle - buds, tender leaves, mature leaves, flowers and fruits with seeds. I then created tea plant information cards that I shared on social media. The idea to design a calendar focusing on tea plant knowledge followed naturally.

The challenge was gathering enough material and combining aesthetics with educational content into a visually appealing tea plant calendar.

Shooting high-resolution macro pictures and isolating the tea plant parts from their background was labor-intensive. I remember nights of sitting in front of my computer screen and removing the background on a scale of tiny pixels. I concentrated on removing little colored square boxes to get the cleanest cut-out possible. This sounds crazy, but it allows us to see all the details -  even every single tooth of the serrated edge of a tea leaf and every single strand of tea hair are visible. I guess this attention to detail shows my appreciation for tea.

Reading and researching were also significant parts of the work that went into the calendar. I read numerous scientific publications and even Chinese tea textbooks that I translated to use as a source for the information provided in the calendar.

Next, I had to decide where to place all the elements of the calendar - picture, headline, Chinese calligraphy, information, dates, etc.. What font, what size, and what colors? Designing something new is rewarding but challenging as you are confronted with a blank piece of paper and so many options around your mind.

However, everything came together and turned into a unique and one-of-its-kind tea calendar that I’m happy to offer fellow tea lovers.

Q. What do you hope people feel or experience with your calendar?

A. At Decoding Tea, my mission is to help tea lovers to become tea connoisseurs.

I hope the calendar helps fellow tea lovers advance on their tea journey by expanding their tea plant knowledge throughout the year, month by month. Being able to name something we see benefits us in grasping it; that’s why the calendar showcases different parts of a tea plant on a macro scale and focuses on naming and explaining those parts. It provides tea lovers an insight into the growing cycle of a tea plant, naming conventions, and information relevant to crafting tea.

Furthermore, I would love fellow tea enthusiasts to feel enchanted by the raw beauty of the plant - Camellia sinensis - that delights us cup by cup.

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