September 24, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different...

This blog customarily hews very closely to its self-assigned subject matter of life-and-death gardening issues.  Once in a while, though, something from an ancillary field is so darned interesting that I feel compelled to comment upon it.  This is one of those cases.

My wife, in addition to being a Lifetime Master Gardener, accomplished garden designer, garden club doyenne and half a dozen other titles, is also an internationally certified flower show judge.  Customarily, my principal interest in flower shows extends only to incorporating them into the plots of my mysteries, somewhat to her annoyance.  On Tuesday of this week, I accompanied her (she would say that she accompanied me) to a floral design demonstration.

Mrs. Soho Sakai, holder of
a Riji degree in Ikebana
The school of floral design was Ikebana; more specifically the Sogetsu School of Ikebana.  The person giving the demonstration was Mrs. Soho Sakai, a Master Teacher from San Francisco.  I don’t know what I expected going into what I thought would be an hour-long session, but what I came away with two-plus hours later was something very different:  For the first time, I think I may ‘get’ Ikebana.

Ikebana, for the uninitiated, is the traditional art of Japanese flower arranging.  There are several schools, one of which is Sogetsu.  When you see a display of Ikebana, you never see prize ribbons because Ikebana is never judged in competition.  Each entry stands alone.  I knew that much going into the program.

I have also seen Ikebana arrangers creating designs, but you don’t tap someone on the shoulder and ask why they’re doing something a particular way.  Designers get annoyed that way.  Instead, I have – like most people – looked at the finished design and admired it and tried to understand it.

Mrs. Sakai, who has been in the United States for 40 years and works out of San Francisco, managed to turn me into a genuine Ikebana fan in just one morning.  She then put the finishing touches on my transformation through a dinner conversation the following evening.  She appeared at the invitation of the Boston Chapter of Ikebana International.  Mrs. Sakai holds a Riji, or Director rank, the highest in the Sogetsu School.  To become a Riji, you first have to earn 13 separate diplomas.

That's me, admiring one of Mrs. Sakai's designs
But diplomas don’t necessarily translate into inspiration.  It was Mrs. Sakai on a stage, explaining what she did as she worked, that did the trick.  She was full of humor, wisdom and grace.  She held everyone’s attention through 14 designs, the last several of which were so over the top as to elicit gasps.  She spoke of technique, she spoke of philosophy.  Mostly, though, she just talked about Ikebana and why she was doing what she was doing.  As she spoke, these incredible arrangements grew before our eyes, and I began to understand.

One design incorporated a container fashioned from a single piece of two-inch-thick bamboo… a piece of bamboo roughly ten feet long.  Two feet at one end were left undisturbed as was one section a foot long at the other.  In between, the bamboo had been pared to a strip an inch or so wide, with the result that, when the larger section was anchored on a platform, its ‘satellite’ bobbed six feet away.  Mrs. Sakai added floral material to both receptacles, creating a kinetic arrangement.  It was nothing short of amazing and, when placed against a wall, became a piece of art as well as of floral design.

The following evening, I had the unexpected pleasure of sitting next to Mrs. Sakai at a dinner party.  We talked about Ikebana and I noted that she had referred to all of her flowers in the feminine form, as “I’m going to place her…” and “She looks unhappy here…”  In one of her designs, there was one bloom – a beautiful green anthurium, that refused to stay in place or bend as required for the design. “I think she is not well behaved,” Mrs. Sakai said at the time, scolding the flower. 

Reminding her of her words, I suggested that perhaps flowers were of different genders, and that the ones that would not comply with her requests or were otherwise unruly might possibly be ‘male’ flowers. 

She looked at me, considering what I had said.  After a moment, she smiled and nodded.  “I think that is a very good observation,” she said.  “I have learned a new insight in Boston.”

Perhaps she was being kind, but it was poetry to my ears.  That’s it:  I’m officially an Ikebana fan.

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