Carolyn Poncato and Katherine Liepe-Levinson
Carolyn Poncato and Katherine Liepe-Levinson

The art world is filled with synchronicity. The entire world is actually filled with synchronicity, but it seems artists have a special way of finding it.

Take Katherine Liepe-Levinson and Carolyn Poncato.

Ms. Poncato opened Riverhead’s first-ever tea shop, Vital-A-Tea, in July, and she hadn’t ever met Ms. Liepe-Levinson, a photographer who lives in Riverside and is also committed to the revitalization of Riverhead.

But then, one day, Ms. Liepe-Levinson’s husband was scrambling for a wedding anniversary present. He decided to take out a glossy full-page ad in Dan’s Papers advertising his wife’s work.

Ms. Poncato was thumbing through the magazine when she saw the ad and immediately called Dan’s Papers to see if they could put her in touch with the artist. She knew the work would be perfect in her shop.

It turns out, Ms. Liepe-Levinson was right around the corner from the tea shop, and she came running right over. It seemed, to her, too great a synchronicity to pass up. She immediately began bringing in work to display at Vital-A-Tea.

“The moment I saw her work, it was peaceful, flowing and felt like it should be here,” said Ms. Poncato. “People often ask if it was done for here, specifically.”

Their friendship since then has grown in much the same way. Ms. Poncato, who worked a a property manager for many years, began studying Ayurvedic medicine and the art of tea not long after her mother died in 2006. A bout with breast cancer also helped to strengthen her resolve to help others lead a life of healing.

Ms. Liepe-Levinson, a former dancer who studied at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, is also on a spiritual mission. It began when she started taking photographs of wildlife in the freshwater ponds of the East End, especially at the former ice pond at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge.

Tonight, Sept. 12, Ms. Liepe-Levinson will hold an opening for a solo show of her “Earth/Water” series at Vital-A-Tea from 5 to 7 p.m., with teas, juice shots and mocktails prepared by Ms. Poncato.

Ms. Liep-Levinson with "Duck Soup"
Ms. Liep-Levinson with “Duck Soup”

When she began working with her current subject matter, Ms. Liepe-Levinson would look at the photographs when she was finished, and discover strange qualities to the water or the murky surroundings of the wildlife she’d photographed, all at high shutter speeds without any filters.

She showed them to her friends, wondering if they too would see the hidden painterly qualities of the photographs. Her friends insisted they had been photoshopped. Ms. Liepe-Levinson insisted they hadn’t. Then she set off to see if these strange natural phenomena would continue to grace her camera’s lens.

“What I saw in the water was as amazing as the wildlife. People are not paying close attention to fresh water around here, but it’s an important part of our environment,” she said.

Her first series, which she called “Duck Soup,” was of a Quogue Wildlife Refuge duck surrounded by green swirls of freshwater algae.

“This is when I realized something was going on,” she said.

Other series focus on the interplay of water and light, on the turtles found in ponds, and on swans swimming in formation, looking almost like notes on a music staff.

Ms. Liepe-Levinson has also turned her lens to photographing the pollution in the Hudson River in contrast with the natural beauty there, but she is still seeking the right place on the East End to display those photographs.

“Art makes us turn around and stop and think,” she said. “Bertolt Brecht said art is a way of making something familiar strange.”

Katherine Liep-Levinson's "Light Games"
Katherine Liep-Levinson’s “Light Games”

The large format photographs in the show are printed by DUGGAL in New York on white dibond, an aluminum composite material that holds up under extreme conditions.

Ms. Liepe-Levinson likes the idea of printing a series about water on metal.

“In feng shui, metal supports water,” she said. “We need to use the mettle of our technology to support the water like metal does,” she said.

The work fits right in in the space Ms. Poncato has created at Vital-A-Tea at 49 East Main Street. The minimalist design of the tea room is immediately calming, and there is a meditation space in the back room where she offers meditation and yoga classes.

Finding balance at Vital-A-Tea
Finding balance at Vital-A-Tea

Ms. Poncato offers more than 30 varieties of tea, and she is an expert on finding ways to mix the teas, or pair them with food, or use them to help her clients recover from any sort of physical or psychological ailment.

“Drinking Carolyn’s tea is like enjoying fine art,” said Ms. Liepe-Levinson. “Carolyn has a remarkable ability to look at someone and key into something special about them. This is helping to bring artists back to Riverhead.”

“Riverhead is so real and so authentic. There’s something so beautiful about the physical aspect of downtown,” she added. “To have a tea shop like this is really part of the revitalization.”

Ms. Poncato hopes that other would-be business owners make a commitment to seeing Riverhead’s revitalization through, which could take years.

“Other business owners have been extremely helpful,” she said. “If you’re looking to start a business, this is the place to do this. We have the homeless but we have people coming in for dance classes, immigrants. It’s really just a cultural event down here.”



Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at

One thought on “Exploring the Secrets of Fresh Water, Tea & Riverhead’s Revitalization

  1. Downtown Riverhead is Long Island’s sleeping beauty and many suitors have caused her current stir, but for her to fully waken we need a charismatic, independent and visionary newcomer who loves the town more than party, self, money or the usual cronyism/graft – perhaps from a far-off place and with a pure and courageous heart.

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