The pre­cise of art of Ja­panese Ike­bana flower ar­rang­ing

The pre­cise art of Ja­panese Ike­bana flower ar­rang­ing

Oi Vietnam - - Contents - Text by Re­becca Jones Im­ages by Ngoc Tran


NGUYEN’S small stu­dio in Tan Dinh on a rainy May day I felt im­me­di­ately at ease. The cozy space con­sisted of just two dark wood side ta­bles sur­rounded by the flow­ers and plants we would use for the day. On the wall above was a col­lec­tion of items that Auralynn, an ur­ban mag­pie, had col­lected from Saigon’s streets and fash­ioned into unique pieces of sculp­ture.

These in­cluded fallen branches, nailed to­gether to make a square, in­ter­sect­ing, raft-like ob­ject and a flower vase fash­ioned from plas­tic straws and ny­lon bands. The win­dows, fit­ted with or­nate cast iron shut­ters of aptly flo­ral de­sign, let just enough light through to work by and, like the tra­di­tional Ja­panese tokonoma, or al­cove, that her art form was de­signed to or­na­ment, pro­moted a sense of quiet in­spi­ra­tion.

Auralynn be­gan study­ing So­getsu Ike­bana—a mod­ern in­car­na­tion of an an­cient Ja­panese form of flo­ral ar­range­ment—just five years ago at the ten­der age of 20. She was in­spired by a book on the sub­ject that she hap­pened upon in her home­town of Los An­ge­les, in the US.

“I be­gan read­ing and re­al­ized it was very prophetic. I re­al­ized that Ja­panese art is very mis­un­der­stood in the West,” says Auralynn. She dis­cov­ered that, con­trary to what she feels is a com­mon per­cep­tion, Ja­panese flower de­sign is highly aca­demic, in­tri­cately pre­cise and deeply mean­ing­ful.

Per­fect Bal­ance

This was ev­i­dent from the very be­gin­ning of our les­son, when Auralynn in­tro­duced me to the first of five text­books in the So­getsu Ike­bana lit­er­ary canon. Book one, from which all stu­dents start, ex­plains the ba­sic tech­niques and prin­ci­ples of Ike­bana, from how to han­dle the tools, the flow­ers and how to cal­cu­late the math. “Yes, there is a lot of math!,” Auralynn says through a gig­gle in re­sponse to my ev­i­dent ex­pres­sion of hor­ror, “but don’t worry, it’s very easy.”

Re­fer­ring to the kakei-zu, or blue­print of the ar­range­ment, we be­gan with the ba­sic up­right Ike­bana style, or morib­ana. This is based on three cen­tral pil­lars: shin (man), soe (heaven) and hikae (earth). As Auralynn ex­plained, Ike­bana is firmly rooted in Zen prin­ci­ples, and so putting these three el­e­ments into per­fect bal­ance is essen­tial.

I be­gan by choos­ing my con­tainer, or suiban— a shal­low, round tray filled with just a cen­time­ter of wa­ter that is a typ­i­cal start­ing block for new stu­dents—I went for a red one. On Auralynn’s ad­vice I then chose del­i­cate white lilies and a ver­dant bunch of fra­grant ole­an­der for my first Ike­bana de­sign.

The tallest sprig of ole­an­der was for shin, which stands in the cen­ter of the ar­range­ment lean­ing at just a slight 15-de­gree an­gle. Un­der Auralynn’s watch­ful eye I sheared the stem of the plant un­der­wa­ter—as all Ike­bana is cut in or­der to pre­serve the flow­ers for longer—to a height ap­prox­i­mately twice the cir­cum­fer­ence of the con­tainer, plus an inch for the height (the dreaded math).

I then po­si­tioned my shin in­side the suiban onto the ken­zan, a heavy, fear­ful look­ing gray me­tal disk ar­rayed with small sharp spikes that holds this style of Ike­bana ar­range­ment in place. “As well as the foun­da­tion for Ike­bana, this is also a neat, hand­bag sized weapon,” Auralynn quipped, per­haps sens­ing my fear at los­ing a fin­ger in the cre­ative process.

No Sen­ti­ment

Next came soi, for which I chose a stock­ier, more fo­li­ate piece of ole­an­der and placed it to the left of shin at a strict 45-de­gree an­gle to the cen­ter of the ken­zan.

How­ever, my big­gest chal­lenge came in hikae, where I found my­self deeply re­luc­tant to cut an en­tire un­opened lily from its stem in or­der to cre­ate the right bal­ance for the piece.

To this, how­ever, Auralynn was un­sym­pa­thetic: “Ike­bana in­volves a lot of sac­ri­fices; you can­not have sen­ti­ment. You can’t worry about cut­ting flow­ers be­cause they’re too pretty. If the flower is too pretty you can’t do Ike­bana. Ike­bana is about what

you ex­press right now,” she gen­tly, but firmly in­sisted.

Auralynn ex­plained that Ike­bana was founded by Ja­panese samu­rais in the Jomon pe­riod around 1200BC and was in­tended as an of­fer­ing to honor im­por­tant vis­i­tors. The first de­signs were highly flo­ral and nat­u­ral, how­ever, as the form de­vel­oped over the cen­turies it has be­come more struc­tural, cul­mi­nat­ing in the So­getsu School.

So­getsu Ike­bana was founded in 1927 by Ike­bana artist Sofu who, heav­ily in­flu­enced by mod­ernist Euro­pean sculp­tors like Dechamp, trans­formed Ike­bana into a pro­gres­sive form de­signed to ex­press the per­son­al­ity and cre­ativ­ity of the artist. This is the spirit that Auralynn is try­ing to bring back into Ike­bana to­day. “In the US, Ike­bana has be­come some­thing of a housewives art for mid­dle aged women,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to come here to Saigon where there is no tra­di­tion of So­getsu Ike­bana so I could in­tro­duce it to young peo­ple.”

Grat­i­fy­ingly, Auralynn re­ports that since she be­gan giv­ing lessons three months ago, most of her stu­dents so far have been aged be­tween 22 and 25.

How­ever, she is quick to add that Ike­bana is for any­one. In Ja­pan, the av­er­age age of an Ike­bana tu­tor is around 80 and, as I could see from pic­tures of the teach­ers and their of­ten highly con­cep­tual, some­times in­dus­trial style work, age is no bar­rier to cre­ativ­ity. “Ike­bana keeps you young,” she jokes.

The Fi­nal Stroke

Em­bold­ened, though not with­out re­gret, I cut the lily loose from its par­ent stem and, as stip­u­lated in the

kakei-zu, pared the stalk down to half the size of soi. Im­pal­ing the flower on the ken­zan, I then placed it at a 75-de­gree an­gle to the right of cen­ter. All that was left to be done was to add

jushi to the bot­tom of the ar­range­ment to cover the ken­zan and to cre­ate depth. With Auralynn’s guid­ance I chose some cut­tings of ole­an­der that I had sheared from shin and soe.

My ar­range­ment com­pleted, I im­me­di­ately un­der­stood what Auralynn had said about sac­ri­fice and har­mony. By par­ing back these plants to their barest forms and ar­rang­ing them at pre­cise an­gles, I had cre­ated some­thing of sim­ple, yet re­fined beauty.

Quot­ing renowned Ike­ban­ist Kawan Tat­sunari, Auralynn sum­ma­rized my feel­ing: “Ike­bana is mo­men­tary art with spir­i­tu­al­ity.” I left feel­ing quiet, con­tem­pla­tive and not a lit­tle in­spired.

For more info on Auralynn’s So­getsu Ike­bana, visit Face­book: “so­get­su­saigon” or for some stun­ning ex­am­ples of her work go to In­sta­gram: “so­get­su­saigon”.

Image by Auralynn


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