Ikebana: Friendship Through Flowers

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So, what is ikebana anyway? It’s where East meets West in an art form. A spiritual practice. A channel for connecting with nature. A mental and physical discipline of concentration. A proven meditation practice and stress reliever. It’s about being here and now. And it’s pronounced EE KAY’ BAH NAH. But what IS it, and what does it have to do with gardening?

Philosophy and History
The Japanese characters for the word ikebana most simply translate into “arranging flowers,” but it’s much more than how we Westerners often define flower arranging as making attractive groupings of cut flowers and other plant material for pleasure and to enhance our surroundings. Ikebana is that too. Plus, it goes deeper. It’s a way of communing spiritually with our physical environment through understanding the natural world of seasonal cycles, flowers, and other plant material—and becoming more fully aware of our own nature as humans in the natural order of life.

It is rooted in the concept of spiritual enlightenment central to Zen Buddhist philosophy. While the very word ikebana is Japanese, the practice of ikebana originally came from India and China to Japan over 600 years ago, and it remained for centuries the exclusive province of priests and royalty.
Interest in ikebana expanded from Buddhist ritual to secular art form by mid-17th century and then spread geographically around the world. Aided by ease of travel and speed of communications, a robust following has emerged worldwide.

Schools of Ikebana
Numerous schools of ikebana focus on different aspects of the art form, with the oldest, the Ikenobo School, dating back about 500 years. My firsthand encounters with this school of ikebana were at its birthplace at the Rokkaku-do Temple in Kyoto, Japan in the late 1960s and again in the 1980s. An ikebana temple arrangement featuring a massive construction of logs was so inspiring that I later captured its essence in an etching,
Kyoto Arrangement II.

The Ohara School, founded in 1912 (or up to 50 years earlier, per other sources), is now claimed by many as the foremost authentic school of ikebana after the Ikenobo School, emphasizing the importance of closely observing seasonal aspects of nature and valuing the beauty of natural environments. When I visited London’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show (the largest flower show in England) in 2012, an entire section of the rose marquee was devoted to ikebana arrangements representing the Ohara School.

I once took a class at the Ohara School of Ikebana in Tokyo that combined philosophy with strict rules and rulers to ensure exact proportions. It was a bit intimidating and tedious for this free-form, broad-brush gal, albeit the beginning point in learning this new discipline, I concede.

The Ichiyo, Sangetsu, and Sogetsu Schools join the Ikenobo and Ohara Schools with global following. The Sogetsu School, formed in 1926 with the philosophy that ikebana should expand beyond Japan, is today the largest and best known internationally. This school believes that ikebana is to be appreciated by people from all cultures all over the world, rather than remaining exclusively Japanese.

I witnessed this inclusivity at the Festival of Flowers in Christchurch, New Zealand, which featured intriguing free-form arrangements and installations through Ikebana International to promote “friendship through flowers.”

Ikebana International was founded in 1956 by the late Ellen Gordon Allen, “…to create an organization uniting the peoples of the world through their mutual love of nature and enjoyment of ikebana.”

Its website, www.ikebanahq.org, notes 161 chapters in 50 countries with approximately 7,600 members. Ikebana is now in Virginia in Northern Virginia, Virginia Beach, and Richmond. Ikebana of Richmond (www.ikebanaofrichmondva.org) holds monthly meetings at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden that feature certified demonstrators, classes and workshops.

The Art of Arranging
It’s no surprise that ikebana requires carefully considered and immaculately fresh plant material. Withered leaves, flowers or fruit may be used only as an intentional part of the concept of the arranger in making a statement featuring that stage of the life cycle of the plant. The arranger can combine unlikely plant material (dried twigs or surprising combinations of shapes and colors) to convey a message or an emotion—and can also include objects such as rocks, driftwood, or even metal or plastic.

Ikebana can even feature just one plant, such as bamboo for an assemblage (as in the construction pictured on page 87). As my friend Janice Berkley, who also studied ikebana in Japan, says, “…they can be quite elaborate, but they need not be. Whatever you have that speaks to you is a possibility!
This makes ikebana less intimidating.”

Isn’t creating ikebana beginning to sound like the fun we had as children when gathering wildflowers, interesting rocks, and other found objects and arranging them on our bedroom dressers?

Ikebana avoids formal symmetry, and the arranger thoughtfully considers negative space: where not to place plant material as well as where to place it. And combinations of shapes and colors can certainly seem odd and discordant compared to traditional Western principles of design and color in the Western tradition of arranging flowers in harmoniously colorful masses or lines.

If thinking in Western terms, consider contemporary ikebana as something Picasso might have created after his departure from traditional painting. For some, it’s an acquired taste. For me, each arrangement is an exciting work of art that encourages the creator and viewer to consider nature and the visual world in challenging and exciting ways. As an art form, ikebana is more like performance art—ephemeral, expected to return to the earth after making a powerfully evocative statement that rises from a discipline of the inner spirit.

Arrangement Styles

Among the plethora of ikebana styles, let’s start with the basics of two historic styles practiced by the Sogetsu School: moribana and nageire.
Moribana is the upright style with three primary elements or lines representing heaven (shin), man (soe), and earth (hikae) as the innate symbolism of ikebana. They are positioned in varying heights according to formula (here’s where the ruler comes in) in a flat, low container and held in place by a spiked frog (kenzan); and while shin is upright, the other two are angled in the round so the arrangement does not appear flat. Or the entire composition can slant. In either case, it’s important to camouflage the kenzan with plant material, stones or in other creative ways.

Basic nageire arrangements are natural or casual looking in vertical containers, hence the translation of being called “thrown in.” Yet, they’re anything but thrown in. Rather, they are carefully and artfully assembled with traditional cross-bar mechanics (or currently any way that works) to hold the elements in place. The heaven, man and earth concepts still preside. But in today’s world, anything goes!

Ikebana 101: Let’s Try One!
It’s not hard. It just requires you to put aside your daily concerns and move into a creative zone: First, think about what plant material and containers (and perhaps other objects) to use. What’s growing in your yard or other places where you may gather? Look at it carefully. How does it speak to you?

Here are a few simple attempts of my own that I hope will give you the idea (see photos). It was winter, and I was longing for spring, so I chose branches that I knew I could force to bloom inside to tell the message of approaching spring. Oh, and it helps me to create haiku poems (5-7-5 syllables) to aid in focusing on my message. Here goes:

#1 Spring Arising
Quince sings heaven’s song
While aucuba braves earth’s chill:
We bow low in praise

What I was thinking: Quince branches forced to bloom indoors in winter reach upward toward heaven, paralleling the uplifted arms in the stained-glass window next to the arrangement. Stalwart aucuba leaves, representing earth, remain firm throughout winter months. We humans, hothouse flowers like orchids, pay homage to heaven and earth.

#2 Forced Flowering
Dangling golden charms
Add bling to copper and jade:
Spring’s jewel box opens.

What I was thinking: Fantail Willow catkins are early blooming flowers (inflorescence) that brighten winter’s brown and green landscape and foretell the multitude of jewel-tone spring blooms to come. Glossy green magnolia leaves with velvety copper undersides symbolize man’s outer shell, yet inner tenderness; arranged in a fired clay pot with trailing ivy reaching for earth.

#3 Saucy Saucers
Stealing stage center
Eager to please, always zapped
Spring frost says, “Tricked you!”

What I was thinking: Saucer Magnolia puts on its early spring show of beautiful blossoms before the last frost, which inevitably kills the blooms. These blooms force easily indoors, as shown in this winter arrangement, where they are paired with a casual cluster of winter jasmine.

Want to learn more?
This is the year for getting hooked on ikebana right here at home in Lynchburg! Opera on the James (www.operaonthejames.org) will feature ikebana at Madama Butterfly’s Garden Cabaret, along with kimonos, lanterns, Japanese art (on display and at auction) and more, on Saturday, April 22 at the Academy Center of the Arts. Then on April 25, Lynchburg’s Garden Day will also include ikebana at all houses (including our own) as part of the Garden Club of Virginia’s annual Historic Garden Tour (www.vagardenweek.org).

Give it a whirl and see how ikebana can become a way of more deeply understanding nature and your garden. A way of personal philosophical and artistic expression. And a way of melding cultures and celebrating worldwide respect and friendship.


Story and Photos by Susan Timmons

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