Ikebana - The Living "Way of Flowers"
In doing floral paintings the first step is sculpting...with flowers
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In Japan flower arranging is a tradition, a way of life. It is an expression of the unity of humanity with nature. The traditional use of three branches to symbolize heaven (shin), earth (tai), and man (soe) symbolizes the universe altogether. Ikebana is a way of seeing the beautiful. It is about drawing inspiration from the natural world, and then rearranging those natural forms to present that beauty in symbolic sculptural forms. There are rules to Ikebana that must be learned and practiced. In this process the eye and skill of the artist is attuned. The artist can point out to the viewer the perfection of a particular flower, and can draw the viewer into a scene through the play of lines, dimensionality, and colors.
Ikebana is an art conceived by the inspiration and desire of humanity to capture, interpret, and enhance, with creative imagination and artistry, the beauty of the living “Way of Flowers”.
Bees Do It
My first encounter with a bee was painfully memorable. I was three or four years old and wandering through a green, grassy field. I was drawn to a brilliant yellow flower that shone brightly before me. I was small and close to the ground, so the flower was blooming just a few inches below my face. I bent in to this marvelous blossom to enjoy its fragrance. I knew nothing of bees, only that this one was attracted to the same flower as I. And so, when I put my nose into the flower I felt a sharp sting and quickly pulled back in painful alarm to see the small furry bee still inside the flower. My nose began to throb. In the moment I had no one to turn to for an explanation; this black and yellow flying creature…what was it? Associating the bee in the flower with the pain in my nose taught me a valuable lesson which has “stuck” to this day; remember, always look into the flower to see if it is occupied. No bee, then dive on in.
I have been drawn to flowers, not unlike a bee, always. They coax me into a place of wonderment. How can such beautiful forms and colors come to be? What incredible architecture and design each variety displays. How soft the petals are; and what vibrancy in their delicate folds! I love to live with flowers and to look at them. I grow flowers, I arrange flowers, and I paint flowers.
When I was seven years old I moved to a remote island in the Lau Group of Fiji, a group of 57 islands in the southern Pacific Ocean, east of the Koro Sea. This was my new home. The island was lush with jungle plants, green everywhere, and filled with natural wonders. Large Poinciana trees were in full bloom, their delicate red flowers covering massive open crowns of lacy leaves. The mango trees were heavy with an unusually large crop of ripe, sweet, and juicy fruits. Flowers in white, yellow, pink, and red graced the tops of plumeria trees throughout the village. The flowers fell in large circles on the ground below, like richly textured carpets. To my young eyes the island was filled with strange and new things to see, learn about, and marvel at.
There was a large orchid house just off the path to the village. It was screened, open and airy. Deep cement troughs of water ran the entire length of the orchid house on both sides. When I first entered the space I was enthralled. I was facing a giant room full of exotic flowers, most of which I had never seen. Flowers covered the tables which ran the width of the building, many orchids on each. I walked up and down the rows, examining each flower. I could not imagine how these extraordinary forms came to be.
As we settled into our new life everyone in our small band of adventurers took on services. I helped my mother take care of the orchid collection, serving in the orchid house regularly. It was the height of summer in the tropics, hot and humid. So, tending the beautiful flowers came with a price. The orchid house was an indoor wetland, perfect not only for propagating orchids, but ideal, also, for breeding mosquitoes. Within minutes of being in the room my arms and back were spotted black with the tiny creatures. My hands were occupied holding the hose and watering can. I couldn’t slap them away. I just had to endure their bites as tended to the plants. No matter. I loved it.
Free Flowers Forever
My apprenticeship in flower arranging started early-on, as well. I watched, and was taught by experienced arrangers, observing and mimicking their techniques. Over time I became more confident. I experimented with new shapes, breaking out beyond traditional Western styles. When I returned to Fiji as a young adult my interest and delight in sculpting with flowers expanded. I knew all of the island’s hiding places, where the multicolored marvels of the tropics tucked themselves into the undergrowth. I took my bucket and shears out early in the morning, just after sunrise, while the dew was still heavy on the plants, carefully collecting flowers and greens to use in arrangements. There were huge red gingers, birds of paradise, orchids, heliconias, and a variety of many-colored leaves. The materials I had at hand, the flowers captivated me. I found delight in creating beautiful environments during this time, with the flowers serving as the central focus, as offerings to all eyes that fell on them. I endured some nasty wasp stings in my gathering adventures. A little discomfort was a fair trade for the floral rewards.
Teacher Say, Student Do
Some years later I returned to northern California. I wanted to learn the art of ikebana, and sought a teacher. I heard about an ikebana master who was doing a demonstration nearby. It was there that I saw Shuko Kobayashi for the first time. He was a small man, vital and energetic in his body and spirit, with a kind and welcoming face. He stood behind a table in the front of the room, facing his audience while he produced masterful ikebana arrangements with only a view from the rear. And so, we all had an unobstructed view of his work as he spoke to us, describing his methods and techniques as he placed flowers, leaves, and branches in sculptural forms.
His movements were fast and assured. He was creating the flower arrangements from behind, so that we, his observers, could see them from the front as they appeared. This feat alone impressed me. He did not even need to measure a branch or stem next to the arrangement before he cut it. He was precise, but relaxed and at his ease. I was watching a master at work. He made it look effortless, as all true masters do. I could see the experience in his hands. The completed arrangements were perfect, showing movement and balance. So, of course, I wanted to learn from Sensei Kobayashi.
By the time I met him, Shuko Kobayashi had been teaching Ikebana for years, his entire adult life. He also created abstract sculptures and figurative paintings. Every week he commuted to several towns in the Bay Area to teach his students. He was an older man, yet when he worked with the flowers I could see his face open in wonder, like a child’s face. His demeanor, his nature invited respect, let alone his mastery of the art. To me, he was that kind of guy, humorous, while being very direct in his critiques and instruction. He rolled into class in his first edition Mazda Miata, often with the top down. I drove my own Miata, and parked next to his, branches poking out of the small window. We enjoyed a camaraderie, the shared love of our sports cars, impractical as they were for hauling vases, flowers, and greens.
Every week each of Sensei Kobayashi’s students arrived at class with an armful of flowers and greens which we laid out on the tables that were provided for us. He began by instructing us in the principles of ikebana in the Sogetsu School, which was his form. Then he illustrated those principles with his own arrangements. As he spoke I took notes, and drew diagrams of the structural forms that he created. After a time of speaking and demonstration he would tell us all to begin, using the instruction he had just given.
Sensei Kobayashi continued to instruct us as we worked. He walked around the room, looking at each student’s arrangement. In the beginning, he often tore my entire arrangement apart, telling me to start over. With all of my materials back on the table I would begin again, letting his few words guide me in a new direction. He often reminded me about the importance of movement in the arrangement. There needed to be more expression, and I needed to let go of my careful control. I learned about seeing a branch in its natural form and using the shape of it as the signature or key of the piece. He repeatedly told me to simplify my arrangement, to allow the beauty of the natural lines to be seen. The flowers and branches needed space. The negative space between them was just as important as the positive space.
After each class I took all of the materials that I used for the arrangements back home. Once home, I would spend time carefully redoing the arrangements. Doing the flower arrangements twice in one day helped me to take in and keep the lessons learned. Plus, I had a bounty of flowers in my home every week. I learned many things from my sensei. The lessons that he gave me stuck with me. I remember them and make use of them each time I do Ikebana. I have deep respect for him, and for the tradition of ikebana in the Sogetsu School that he carried forward. I am grateful for the training that he gave me. He was a multifaceted and multitalented teacher. A few of his works are shown here; the cover of a booklet he authored, Abstract Sculpture, and a painting titled, Rock Garden.
From then until now I have continued my Ikebana. I do it for the love of it. I do it to bring joy to others. It is now woven into the fabric of my everyday life. I carry my clippers with me on walks, picking the local wildflowers and greens of each season.
Practicing Ikebana all these years has informed my paintings. It is a three-dimensional art form, a sculptural form. This play of dimensions has influenced my painting compositions. I have learned about drawing the eye of the viewer through the movement of forms. This has translated onto the two-dimensional form of painting. I find that each art form that I do inspires and informs the other art forms. They are all a part of the same thing. I like this blending, and I encourage it.
History of Ikebana
Recently I was reading The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura. He dedicates a chapter to flowers. Here are a few of his words about the origins of Ikebana:
The birth of the Art of Flower-Arrangement seems to be simultaneous with that of Teaism in the fifteenth century. Or legends ascribe the first flower-arrangement to those early Buddhist saints who gathered the flowers strewn by the storm and, in their infinite solicitude for all living things, placed them in vessels of water. It is said that Soami, the great painter and connoisseur of the court of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, was one of the earliest adepts at it. Juko, the tea-master, was one of his pupils, as was also Senno, the founder of the house of Ikenobo, a family as illustrious in the annals of flowers as was that of the Kanos in painting. With the perfection of the tea-ritual under Rikyu, in the latter part of the sixteenth century, flower-arrangement also attains its full growth.
The Sogetsu School was founded by Sofus Teshigahara in 1925, it is the most modern school of Ikebana. The Sogetsu School is about the freedom of expression, while still applying traditional Ikebana rules. It focuses on the beauty of line. It emphasizes mastering techniques that aid in the expression of that beauty of line. It is inherently a sculptural art form.
As Senei Ikenobo says in Flower Arrangement: The Ikebana Way:
Ikebana does not merely aim to arrange flowers into a certain form; it aims rather to grasp the configuration of the vividly growing elastic force of plants, representing our earnest human desire to come in contact with the foundation of the creative power, through various floral arrangements. Analogically speaking, it does not attempt to admire a “waxen mannequin” as the beauty, but the basic fact itself of the “breathing human being” is the object.
...by looking at the figures of arranged flowers, we can listen to the words of the Gods, Ikebana has thus become more and more evolved, rendering both the arrangers and the spectators to keep themselves as elegant as blooming flowers and displaying the art as the act of wishing the Gods’ blessing on others also.
If you would like to see more floral art you can follow these links to my website: Framed Ikebana Paintings on Silk & Floral Portraits Currently Available, Archival Reproductions Currently Available, Floral Portraits Portfolio.