It takes a certain audacity to write about an ancient tradition, to profess knowledge of an ocean after only dipping in a toe. But I wanted to lead with the idea of audacity and its flip side humility because from ikebana I have learned that both qualities are helpful in making flowers into art.
Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. In order to get to the technical how-tos a little faster, here's a brief history from Ikebana International:
Ikebana, one of the traditional arts of Japan, has been practiced for more than 600 years. It developed from the Buddhist ritual of offering flowers to the spirits of the dead. By the middle of the fifteenth century, with the emergence of the first classical styles, ikebana achieved the status of an art form independent of its religious origins, though it continued to retain strong symbolic and philosophical overtones. The first teachers and students were priests and members of the nobility. However, as time passed, many different schools arose, styles changed, and ikebana came to be practiced at all levels of Japanese society.
My teacher, Fumi Csizmazia, claimed that after 1914, schools developed for upper class girls to study ikebana in Japan. By the 1960s when Fumi was in nursing school in Japan, she was offered ikebana as a part of her training. She now teaches ikebana from this perspective—as a therapeutic practice, healing art and meditation.
There are over 3000 schools/styles of ikebana today, but in our six-week course we only focused on maribana. In maribana, you can see the water in the vessel, usually a low dish. The water's surface is an element of design, meant to be calming.
In maribana (I'm going to avoid digging into the technicalities on the internet and just write from my understanding and notes otherwise I think we'd both be here for days!), you need three branches of diminishing lengths—one primary (signifying the heavens), a secondary (signifying man), and a third less impressive one (the earth). These are arranged in the shape of a triangle or an inverted triangle, using the air space between branches as a guide. Fumi told us to think about developing a 'cradle' from these branches, cautioning against developing a 'flat frame'. The triangle is significant as it's a form which doesn't exist in nature.
To hold the branches, you need a flower frog, or suiban, as it's called in Japanese. The suiban may be covered with moss or leaves that 'float' on the surface of the water. In the spring and summer, more water is revealed (considered sustaining). You can see already how the simplicity of ikebana is highly intentional, but its complexity is profound, carried through philosophical meanings and symbolic associations.
One of the key principles of ikebana is the idea that empty space carries 'weight'. In the picture above, I've got the right hand twig too far relaxed. In maribana, the angles of the three branches would be: primary—10-15 degrees off centre; secondary at 45 degrees and the tertiary at 60-75 degrees. At this point, you should should probably look up a guide—seeing a visual map can be immensely helpful.
For flower selection, and filler, think about angle, rhythm, colour—everything holds meaning. For example, buds signify the future, and an open flower, the past. So for a graduation, you'd offer a full flower to show accomplishment. From the placement of the suiban in the dish, to the specific angles you select, you should remember that you are the sun the blooms are turning towards. Every flower needs to regard the viewer.
So how does humility and audacity come into play? In ikebana the viewer and maker should be reminded that nothing is perfect. Each display should signify emotion, season and circumstance. Fumi had three tips to guide the arranging process, her 'CBA list' that to me implies the importance of believing in yourself and also in stepping outside yourself and bowing down before beauty: C: Concentrate on the hidden beauty of the material you are working with; B: Be aware of your unique creativity; A: Appreciate the created form which does not exist in nature's setting.
Ikebana is a practice…and a lifelong one of study at that. That said, I asked Fumi if she would consider giving a short workshop in the garden this coming summer and she's keen, so sign up for the newsletter if you'd like to learn more. And my humblest apologies that I didn't have time to explore ikebana fully in this post. Teaser it will have to remain!