The art of ikebana

  • Sarah Jackson<br>For the Enterprise
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 11:28am

When Megumi Schacher arranges flowers, she looks like a dancer.

Precise and petite, she bends left and right, reaching gracefully to manipulate twigs and blooms, leaning to push a stubborn branch down, then tilting her head to check her work.

A graceful floral arrangement, which was designed during a class at Megumi Schacher’s home, uses quince and stock. Students Doris Beck and Mary Hervol of Lynnwood sit on the sidelines at the dining table in Schacher’s home in Brier.

They are captivated by Schacher’s elegance as she places leafless stems of hot pink camellia into a mass of naked, snow-white branches of the Chinese paper bush tree.

“Oh,” Hervol sighs, breathlessly as Schacher puts a final stem into place. “Isn’t that lovely? It’s beautiful.”

Yes, it helps that Schacher has experience in Japanese classical dance. But this is her true love — ikebana — the art of Japanese flower arrangement, a hobby that is steadily spreading in Snohomish County and the world.

Beck and Hervol, who are taking weekly classes with Schacher, enjoy the art’s simplicity as well as the romance of Japanese culture, made tangible in the green tea and sweet bean cakes Schacher serves during demonstrations.

“It has more meaning to us,” Hervol said. “This isn’t just pretty flowers in a vase.”

Ikebana, Hervol has learned, is nothing like the typical “clutch-and-drop” floral design so common in the Western world in which arrangements often rely on a large volume and variety of blooms organized symmetrically in a bouquet.

Ikebana, in fact, is decidedly asymmetrical and often minimalist.

Open spaces and dramatic lines, often crisscrossing, help create one-of-a-kind arrangements that highlight the magnificence of nature well beyond the beauty of colorful blossoms grouped together.

Living twigs from flowering trees, leaves, grasses, seed pods and buds — all elements you can find in most Puget Sound gardens — can all mix with flowers in the art of ikebana, just not typically all in one arrangement.

“Ikebana is not adding. It’s more minus,” Schacher said, using hand pruners to pare down an angular branch. “Less is more. You create a space.”

Schacher, who also teaches classes at Swanson’s Nursery and the Lynnwood Recreation Center, has been practicing in the Sogetsu School of ikebana for more than 10 years.

Sogetsu is one of many official ikebana schools born from Japanese masters who have passed their interpretation of the ancient art onto their children or students, who go on to become masters and teachers themselves.

Each school has a special emphasis or style. Sogetsu, founded in 1927 by Sofu Teshigahara, encourages freedom of expression. Today Sogetsu has active branches all over the world, including three in the Seattle-Tacoma area.

Ikenobo and Ohara are two other predominant schools worldwide and locally. There are many more, however. According to Ikebana International, more than 2,000 schools of ikebana are registered with the Japanese Ministry of Education.

Through the ages, ikebana has evolved from humble spiritual practice to high art in the homes of royalty and back again to ordinary citizens.

Today in Japan, though many of the leading ikebana artists are men, young women especially are encouraged to learn the tradition as part of their upbringing, much like ballet for young American girls, said Mayumi Nishiyama Smith, director of the Nippon Business Institute at Everett Community College.

Ikebana, Smith said, stands in stark contrast to the pace of the frantic modern world.

“It gives you an opportunity to slow down and calm your mind and get tranquility and peace of mind and as well as appreciate the beauty,” Smith said. “It is the same as the tea ceremony. When you make a flower arrangement you cannot rush.”

Beck appreciates the simplicity of showcasing only a few floral elements in ikebana.

She and Hervol have each created a variety of basic arrangements so far.

“You can make something gorgeous and simple and elegant,” Hervol said. “You don’t need $27 worth of flowers.”

Though ikebana is growing in popularity, Schacher and her husband, Jack, hope to see the hobby elevated within the visual arts community beyond a mere gardening fad.

It’s no different than sculpture or painting, especially among accomplished creators, Jack Schacher said.

“In Japan, it’s treated as an art form and it’s respected,” he said, adding that a growing number of young Japanese American teachers are sharing the art outside of the local Japanese community. “It has the potential to explode once people find out about it. You can see it’s just something waiting to happen.”

In ikebana, it is possible to take an element of the natural world — perhaps something fairly ordinary, such as a blooming quince branch — and make it extraordinary through creative placement.

Nobuko Relnick of Woodinville, who offered ikebana demonstrations at the Northwest Flower &Garden Show in Seattle last month, said the art presents nature in another dimension created by the artist.

“When you see a beautiful flower outside, of course, you can bring it in and put it in bud vase and admire it as it is,” said Relnick, who also teaches in the Sogetsu School of ikebana. “But when we bring it in for ikebana, people should say it’s beautiful, but it’s also very interesting.”

Though some students can work their way through the Sogetsu School’s four major textbooks in two to three years, experience and practice are essential to acquire “the eye” for ikebana design.

“When you look at the one flower, (you must ask) which leaf has to go away and which leaf has to stay?” Smith said. “You have to make these choices. If it’s too many, it will be too cluttered. Some (arrangements) are really abundant, but they still are intentionally placed.”

Ikebana is a surprisingly precise art, said Barbara West of Edmonds, who is also a student and admirer of Schacher.

“She can show you how just moving something just a tiny bit makes a big difference,” said West, who has studied the craft for the past year with weekly lessons.

West, who has exhibited some of her work publicly, thrives on the artistic sense she is gaining.

“I’m not a painter, and I don’t do pottery and ceramics, and here you can actually do your own creation and that’s the draw,” she said. “It’s a very peaceful feeling to do it.”Sarah Jackson is a writer for The Herald newspaper in Everett.

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