Tuesday, September 18, 2012

This morning on NPR's Morning Edition I heard a story about microbrewing beer in Japan, in a brewery that used to specialize in sake (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/09/18/161147806/japanese-sake-makers-shake-off-tradition-try-brewing-craft-beer). The following quote caught my attention: "Making sake is like judo or flower arranging – you're judged by how well you stick to the rules; there's no margin for improvisation."

First, note that the speaker, a Japanese brewer, refers to flower arranging (ikebana) in the same sentence with judo, and that alone tells you something about the place of flower arranging in the culture. But it's also important to note that he refers to the rules of ikebana, a facet of the art that is off-putting to some.

Whereas sake makers are breaking free to produce microbrews, people taught to follow the rules of whatever style of ikebana  they learned are now free to produce floral arrangements called (what else?) free-style ikebana.

So if you think you wouldn't like to learn ikebana because it has strict rules, please know that freewheeling, free-style arranging is available to all. But here's another side of the story: I actually prefer, as a novice ikebana and ikenobo practitioner, to learn the rules. They don't feel like restrictions to me. I feel that I'm learning how to put into practice an aesthetic I admire. How can I learn to produce a design that looks like ikenobo? By learning the rules behind the appearance. After I learn them well, then I'll be free to free-style.
I kept noticing a dog poop stink in the vicinity of my studio where I do flower arranging. At first I kept checking to see if one of my Chihuahuas had made a deposit, but then I realized what I was smelling. It was the lingering scent of the flower I had been arranging in one of my nicest china bowls. I had decided to try to create an arrangement with a Stapelia flower. I think they're gorgeous, but they stink. They intend to. They attract dozens of eager flies, instead of hummingbirds or bees, to my porch where the plants are in bloom. They do look a bit like rotting meat, I suppose, with reddish-purple veins and hairy edges.  But even more they resemble large starfish. That was what attracted me to them at first, and the friend at whose home I saw them was kind enough to give me two plants, which have multiplied. The arrangement I did with the Stapelia is what is called free-style ikebana, i.e. it doesn't follow any of the rules. More about that and what it has to do with sake and beer in the next blog. Meanwhile, I should say that I was wasn't pleased with the arrangement that resulted, but it was definitely unusual.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

..."the basic aesthetic values of the Japanese, including naturalness, simplicity, suggestion, and perishability...
still another of these basic values, irregularity or asymmetry..."

Quoted from Japanese Culture, 4th ed. (2000), by Paul Varley.

This quote says much about ikebana. Imagine, fellow Americans, valuing "perishability" instead of buying fake flowers. The ikebana arrangement won't last long, and this is a good thing. We must really see, enjoy, and experience it at this moment. The constant recognition of the brevity of living beauty...

For example, in my arrangement above, I use a Datura branch (from my Albuquerque garden) with one full bloom and several buds of different sizes. Normally a Datura bloom opens in the evening, stays open for moths to pollinate it overnight, and then wilts the next morning. Behold, perishability. I managed to keep it from closing long enough to create the arrangement because I cut it on a rare rainy day and immediately placed it in a dim room in water. Also, please note if you can see them, the tiny insect holes in the leaves. In Western-style floral design, these leaves would be considered rejects. In ikebana, on the other hand, the holes signify the season, late summer, when insects are very busy chewing leaves. The season, itself perishable, is extremely important in ikebana, just as it is in Japanese haiku. You might also note that the design is not symmetrical, and the plant materials are simple, just two plants--Datura and snake plant.

Monday, September 3, 2012

How could Japanese flower arranging be so different, you may wonder, from the Western style. After all, flowers are flowers, and you just try to place them attractively in a vase, right? Well, no. If that's all there were to it, there wouldn't be anything called ikebana and the (at least) tens of thousands of people around the world practicing it.

Please keep in mind that this blog is being written by a beginner. So I have no answers about anything. All I offer are some observations about various aspects of this art form (and yes, ikebana is an art form). I hope they will be of interest to other floral designers. Also I'm sure that many people can (and will) argue with my observations.

  • Western flower arranging is, when compared to ikebana, relatively uncomplicated. Sure, one can study it and learn different styles and types of floral design and develop certain skills over time. But it is nowhere near so articulated and complex as ikebana, which has spiritual connections both to Buddhism and Shinto, as well as being part of a distinctive Japanese aesthetic.
  • Western flower arranging plays a completely different cultural role than does ikebana in many respects. For instance, if you read a book (for Westerners) about Japanese society, ikebana is likely to be mentioned or even discussed at some length. If you read a general-audience book about Europe or the English-speaking nations, flower arranging will likely not be mentioned at all.  Ikebana is one of the distinctive arts that developed hundreds of years ago in Japan. It has thrived and been widely and continuously taught. Western flower arranging is more of a commodity today, more the product of a business than an art, or a competitive activity for a relatively few hobbyists. 
  • Western flower arranging is more about color and profusion, while Japanese flower arranging is more about line and restraint. One of the things I love the most about a beautiful ikebana arrangement is its representation of sculptural line and space. 

  • Western flower arranging tends to emphasize flowers, while ikebana--especially some forms of it, such as ikenobo--emphasizes branches and foliage as much or more than flowers. Some of the classic forms of ikebana, like rikka, resemble small trees more than they do bunches of flowers. As a tree lover, I find that very appealing. For instance, the top photo above is a rikka design I photographed at the Ikenobo Ikebana Society office in San Francisco. The design below it is a Western-style design I created for Laura, my daughter-in-law, when she gave birth to my first granddaughter, Skye.