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Ikebana Flowering
Flower arrangement on display at "Discover Ikebana: the Japanese Art of Flowers" exhibit at UCLA.
(Photo by Vincent Lim)

Ikebana Flowering

An ikebana exhibit at UCLA plants seeds for the next generation of students interested in the ancient Japanese art of flower arrangement.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

You're creating a piece of magic. Your attempt, the same in theater, is to make it look like it was nothing. But you don't see all the frustration and all the effort.

View an online slideshow featuring more photos from "Discover Ikebana: the Japanese Art of Flowers."

Kyoko Kassarjian, director of the Sogetsu School of Japan, San Fernando Valley Branch, holds the highest teaching rank of riji in Sogetsu ikebana. Her experience schooling ikebana students spans over 40 years, including six years at UCLA Extension. Yet she counts a recent UCLA exhibit highlighting the Sogetsu style of ikebana as one of the highlights of her career.

"To have this exhibit was my...dream, and finally my dream came true," Kassarjian said, reflecting upon the two-day event "Discover Ikebana: the Japanese Art of Flowers" in Ackerman Union's 2nd floor lounge held on Feb. 21 and 22. The Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, UCLA Extension, the Consulate General of Japan, and the Rafu Shimpo newspaper sponsored the exhibition showcasing the ikebana arrangements of Kassarjian and her students.

The three-dimensional art form that they practice aims for a harmony of linear construction, rhythm, and color, using flowers, plants and other objects as artistic media. On both days of the event, visitors gathered to watch ikebana arrangements being put together.

"I am interested in the young generation, so ikebana can become international," said Kassarjian, who also teaches at Mission College, Pierce College, and out of her own home.

An avant-garde offshoot of the ancient art form, the Sogetsu School was founded by Sofu Teshigahara in 1927 with the belief that ikebana should be steeped in tradition yet flexible enough to accommodate the modern Japanese lifestyle. Kassarijian demonstrates to her students how to incorporate materials like plastic, plaster, and steel into their arrangements. The blending of modern and traditional elements was on full display at the exhibit.

Sogetsu, Ikenobo, and Ohara are three of the most popular ikebana schools, among more than two thousand registered with the Japanese Ministry of Education. Ikenobo is the oldest school of ikebana in Japan. The Buddhist monk Ikenobo Senkei founded the school in the fifteenth century, which is know for its rikka (standing flowers) style and was practiced by priests and aristocrats. Piled-up flowers in a shallow, flat container typify the Ohara style. Unshin Ohara founded the school in the late nineteenth-century when ikebana was still an exclusive art form of the upper classes, but it was the first ikebana school to break away from the Ikenobo style. The Sogetsu School was established when ikebana schools began opening their doors to people from all social classes.

During the occupation of Japan, many wives of U.S. servicemen learned ikebana and later helped to spread word of the art form around the world. Kassarijian hopes the worldwide growth of ikebana continues into the future.

A Fascination with Flowers

Continuing international interest in ikebana was evidenced by the unusual backgrounds of people who were present at the UCLA exhibit.

Gazing at the flower arrangements in the room was Don Davidson, who has been active in ikebana for over 35 years while also working on designs for many Pasadena Rose Parade floats. He first encountered ikebana when he was in Japan on business.

He recalls watching in the lobby of the Tokyo Hilton hotel as the founder of the Sogetsu School composed a huge creation of flowers and plants. He said to himself, "I want to do that."

The initial fascination blossomed into a lifelong love for ikebana. When Davidson returned from Japan, he sought out a Sogetsu School teacher. He is now a teacher himself and a member of the San Fernando Valley Branch. He participates in teaching ikebana workshops and states that learning can go on for eternity.

Also at the event was UCLA alumna Masako Easton, who never expected she would end up studying ikebana for over six years when she signed up for her first class in flower arrangement. She said she simply wanted to try it out for the fun of it.

She appreciates the creative freedom of Sogetsu ikebana. "You create your own personality through the flowers," Easton said. "It emphasizes more individual taste." But she pointed out that, as in every school of ikebana, students first must learn the basics. Six years into her ikebana career, she still sees herself as a beginner.

In Sogetsu ikebana, students work to earn a series of four certificates, each requiring 24 lessons. Earning the first certificate can take as long as earning a bachelor's degree at UCLA: four to five years. The time required for earning a teacher's diploma varies, but takes much longer than earning a doctoral degree ought to. It is only after the fourth certificate that students are able to go after the credentials that allow them to teach classes and become part of the Sogetsu Teachers' Association.

Beginner- and intermediate-level classes will be held through UCLA Extension for the Spring quarter, April 7 through May 5, 2007. Easton said a number of students are people from professional backgrounds: doctors, dentists, and professors.

There are two common theories about ikebana's origins. One traces it to sixth-century ritual flower offerings made in Buddhist temples in Japan. Another holds that customs from the past like putting up evergreen trees and arranging flowers to call spirit gods later evolved into ikebana.

Davidson said it is always a struggle to create an ikebana arrangement, but that he feels a sense of inner peace when immersed in the process and a great sense of accomplishment when it is finally finished.

"You're creating a piece of magic," Davidson said. "Your attempt, the same in theater, is to make it look like it was nothing. But you don't see all the frustration and all the effort."

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