Ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arranging, came to America following World War II. Ellen Gordon Allen, who discovered its beauty when she lived in Japan during her husband’s military service there, was one of ikebana’s first ambassadors to America. In 1956, she founded Ikebana International. Today, Ikebana International has more than 200 chapters worldwide promoting and appreciating the art of ikebana, including Chapter 182 in Columbia.
“It’s a friendly group of people who share an artistic passion,” says Chapter 182 outgoing President John Spence, who moved to Columbia from Phoenix 13 years ago with his wife, Lucy, and his mother, Kikue, whose name means chrysanthemum in Japanese. Kikue was in her 80s at the time. A native of Japan, she worked as a florist when John was growing up. “I learned ikebana the old fashioned way; my mother taught it to me.”
Even though he knew how to arrange flowers and helped his mother when needed, John was not interested in the distinct floral art form. However, when they moved to Columbia, John drove her to monthly Ikebana International meetings. “The people involved with the local chapter were really kind to my mother,” he says.
An engineer by trade, John eventually began to see the hands-on correlation between engineering and ikebana. “I love it now,” he says. “There is no limit to what you can do with it from a creative standpoint.”
In Japan, the art form of ikebana is backed by centuries of technical development, precise terms, and many schools of discipline. The oldest school, called Ikenobo, was founded by a priest named Senkei Ikenobo in the mid-1400s, but Japanese history traces the first flower arrangements back to the seventh century, when Buddhism was introduced to its culture from neighboring China and Korea. It was customary then, and still is today, to place offerings of flowers before images of Buddha. What started as a simple lotus blossom lying on an altar evolved over the centuries into elaborate, studied arrangements. When Buddhism arrived in Japan, it paired nicely with traditional Japanese Shinto since both religions celebrate nature. Buddhism and Shinto embrace the circle of life in contrast to striving for eternal life. While creating an ikebana arrangement can require an extraordinary amount of time, its purpose is believed to be complete at the moment the arrangement is complete. Following life’s course, it may then die in a matter of days or even hours.
Japanese native and ikebana master Shozo Sato moved from Japan to Champaign, Illinois, to become an artist in residence and later a professor of art and design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After seeing the aftermath of the destruction of Hiroshima by the atomic bomb, he wanted to use his love of Japanese art forms to build a bridge between Japan and America.
Shozo wrote the first English language, comprehensive book on ikebana, The Art of Arranging Flowers: A Complete Guide to Japanese Ikebana, which was published in 1966 and updated in 2008. In it, Shozo describes the oldest surviving manuscript on ikebana, which predates his own book by some 500 years, called Sendensho. Published in 1445, it provides detailed instruction for arrangements used for occasions like festivals and weddings.
Flowers were used for secular purposes in Japan between the eighth and 12th centuries, when a piece of poetry sent as a gesture of admiration was customarily accompanied by a branch of flowers. The recipient placed the branch in water to prolong its beauty and displayed it in a prominent place, resulting in the earliest flower arrangements used for nonreligious purposes.
Japan’s architecture, as well as its political climate, advanced the art of ikebana. In the 12th to 13th centuries, known as the Heian to Kamakura periods, the earliest form of an architectural feature known as the tokonoma appeared in the homes of the nobility. Initial versions consisted of a long board laid against one wall on which three tables were arranged. The tables held candles, incense, and flower arrangements, with three or five wall hangings above them. The 14th and 15th centuries brought the rise of the samurai class, and with it, the formal incorporation of the tokonama into residential architecture as a recessed alcove used to display samurai armor. Japan enjoyed extended periods of peace so the display of armor gave way to the display of wealth in the form of art objects and flower arrangements. According to The Art of Arranging Flowers, the arts were important to military training. “The tea ceremony, calligraphy, composing poetry, and so on, were a vital part of bun bu (bun means ‘literary’; bu means ‘military arts’), the training for samurai. Ikebana occupied an important place in the study of the laws of nature, beauty, and the value of life.”
Ikebana celebrates the asymmetry found in nature and the topographical asymmetry found in Japan, where one’s view may be of mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. When practicing ikebana, the emphasis is not only to bring out the beauty of an element of nature but to make it appear even more beautiful. Often this is accomplished by taking a familiar flower or plant and presenting it in a new way. In ikebana, unnecessary elements are eliminated, whether they be a petal or a leaf or a stem. Unlike a typical painting that covers an entire canvas, Japanese art, whether in painting or theater or flower arranging, makes use of both filled and empty spaces. In his book, Shozo compares the empty spaces in ikebana to haiku poetry. “In haiku, the poem suggests rather than gives a complete description. The idea, metaphorically expressed, is that beauty can be better appreciated when seen mysteriously.”
Traditional Ikenobo ikebana consists of five principle styles: Rikka, Seika, Nageire, Moribana, and Free. Rikka is the most formal style, one that strives to transcend the natural world. Seika arrangements began simply, constructed with only one material. Over the years, the rules for this style relaxed, and now Seika arrangements may include up to three different materials. Unlike Rikka and Seika, material in Nageire can rest against the edge of the container holding it and is referred to as the “thrown in” style. Moribana and Free styles are designed to be viewed from all angles. In contrast, viewing the more formal Seika arrangement from the side is considered disrespectful because it is constructed by placing stems behind each other to make the arrangement appear to come from one stalk. Viewing it from the side would spoil the piece’s mystique.
Norman Churchill, another member of Columbia’s Ikebana International chapter, practices Sogetsu ikebana. The Sogetsu school, founded in the 1920s, is one of the three methods, along with Ikenobo and Ohara, commonly followed in the United States. While Sogetsu has rules about positioning and lines and angles, it is more freestyle than traditional ikebana. Its credo is that it can be done at anytime, anywhere, by anyone, with any material.
Before moving to Columbia in 2007 with Beth, his wife, Norman owned a flower shop on Long Island, New York, for 34 years. At his flower wholesaler, he befriended a Japanese woman named Tomiko Baylis, who encouraged him to learn Sogetsu. Norman became a certified Sogetsu instructor, a rigorous process that can take three to four years, or longer. In addition to presenting on Sogetsu at Ikebana International meetings, he also teaches classes at his home once a month from September through June.
Both John and Norman agree that no two arrangements begin in the same way. Sometimes Norman starts with a container. As he points out, in ikebana, the container is as important as the material put into it, sometimes even more so. Other times, when walking in nature, a branch catches his eye and he begins with the material first.
“A successful arrangement includes good balance and good harmony; everything blends and flows in the container, giving emphasis to the container and to the flowers as well,” says Norman. An arrangement may not include any flowers, instead celebrating the beauty of leaves or branches.
John notes that ikebana artists often are also gardeners. He and Lucy, who is also a gifted ikebana artist, grow materials for arrangements on their property. “I’ve had to become better at gardening,” he says.
The Art of Arranging Flowers holds that even when using a single type of flower, an ikebana artist tries to bring out its full implications as a symbol of nature. Each flower and grass has symbolism in Japan. The aspidistra, one of Norman’s go-to materials, symbolizes improving fortunes. Cherry trees, a gift from the city of Tokyo, decorate our nation’s capital every spring and represent nobility. Hostas stand for devotion; ivy for friendship; and tulips for charity, benevolence, and kindness.
“Ikebana arrangements, accordingly, are expected not only to establish a link between man and nature but also create a mood or atmosphere appropriate to the season or even the occasion — a tradition in keeping with the Japanese focus on the ephemeral nature of life as well,” writes Shozo.
One of Norman’s most memorable opportunities to use his skills in Sogetsu occurred in New York City during the 1991 New York Botanical Gardens Orchid Show. Norman’s friend David Murbach was the garden manager at Rockefeller Center. Familiar with Norman’s involvement with Sogetsu, David invited Norman to enter an exhibit prominently featured at Rockefeller Center Plaza. With two Sogetsu masters who flew in from Japan for the occasion, Norman and his Sogetsu chapter created an arrangement from bamboo while, like Shozo, forming international friendships and bonds of mutual respect.
John’s mother, Kikue, passed away three years ago, but she lived to witness her son’s appreciation for ikebana and his skill as an artist. When asked about her reaction to his arrangements, John laughs. “She just shrugged and said, ‘eh.’”
Mothers are tough customers the world over.