Thursday, January 31, 2013

sculpting with flowers

i have fallen in love with another art form: ikebana, japanese flower arranging.

what appeals to diana is the minimalism, the simplicity that calls and allows for attention drawn to each aspect.

i love that there is a form and a structure and a mindfulness and connection to nature.  i can easily see this becoming an important element in my personal practices.

diana had participated in a lesson for children a year or two ago and remembered a few of the elements.  she and i received a more formal instruction together, with details on tools and materials and design elements.  helen, our teacher, was so very knowledgeable and guided us smoothly and with great encouragement.

we started with:

a container
a kenzan (spiky floral frog)
clipping tools

typically, seasonal materials are selected in harmony with a container that can accommodate them.  we often see dark containers, black, grey, opaque pieces in a variety of shapes.  white is less common as a container color and would require elements of white in the materials to draw the eye upward and away from the container itself.

i'd seen floral frogs before, in metal and glass, but only with holes, not looking like the sharp porcupine-looking kenzan we used.  it's necessary to have a base that can hold natural elements up to great heights.

i knew to cut stems on a slant to allow more exposure to water, but did not know that cutting them underwater, not allowing oxygen to come in through the stem, would preserve them longer.  i'll keep that in mind when i cut my own flowers for ikebana or any other arrangement.

helen provided us with black, plastic, shallow containers to work with (actually, i used a clay bowl, since i was not taking mine home).  we placed our kenzans is in the lower left quadrants of the containers, according to the diagram for the moribana basic upright style and poured in enough water to cover the kenzans.

our style has three main elements representing heaven (also called "shin" and denoted as a circle in the diagram), man (called "soe" and represented by a square), and earth ("hikae" as the triangle.  the materials are typically the same for shin and soe, with a different material for hikae.  we chose greenery branches for shin and soe and flowers for hikae.

there are measurements to employ when cutting the materials.  the height of shin = the width of the largest part of the container (or its diameter, if circular) + the height of the container at its highest point + half of the first two added together.

the height of soe = three-quarters of the height of shin.

the height of hikae = three-quarters of the height of soe.

the placement of shin, soe, and hikae are just as important as their relative heights.  their locations in the kenzan and their angles from the vertical axis are indicated in the diagram.

it took more than a little getting used to.  this art requires skill, patience, a keen eye, and a willingness to adjust what does not work.

we looked carefully at the elements we were using for shin and soe.  they were heavily leaved, so she encouraged us to prune back enough to allow the shape of the stem to come through, rather than be hidden.

one must take into account the curvature of the material, too.  when i asked helen if it was important to have the stem or the tip of each piece be at the correct angle, she indicated it needed to be considered as a whole.  she was amused by my comparing it to a regression line; i later learned that she and i have some similar background in data and statistical analysis.

my pruned shin correctly placed, more or less
the key to having the stems stick in the kenzan is to make cross-cuts in the stem after cutting it on the slant.  the stem then opens up a little into four little pieces and hooks on better to the spikes of the kenzan and allows water to travel up the stem more effectively, prolonging the life of the material.

then it was time to place soe.

when flowers are used for hikae and supporting stems, one must ensure that the blooms face upward.  in diana's case, it meant trimming off one of the blooms from the bunch of three because it it pointed downward while the other two could be turned so they faced up.

once the three main elements were in place, we could fill in the rest of the arrangement with four or five subordinate stems and sufficient greenery to hide the kenzan from view.  the flowers we used were either of the same kind or color as what we selected for hikae, or at least complimented the color of hikae, rather than contrasting with it.  one idea is that the materials should work with each other, rather than against, and i imagine a vivid difference would be startling and energizing, rather than serving the purpose of calming and harmonizing.

i so appreciated helen's suggestions of what to add, where to place, when to stop, how to take a look and notice how little adjustments can have an incredibly large impact.  her recommendation to add a third yellow bloom at a very low level made all the difference in my satisfaction with the overall effect.  i do not presume to have gained access to the flow and serenity that comes with the time and effort and expertise in this art form, but i was most definitely exposed to enough that i could catch glimpses of the zone i may expect to enter when i make this a regular practice.

my completed ikebana arrangement, moribana basic upright style

helen took us through a lesson in the basic slanting style, too, whereby we moved the kenazan and altered the positioning and placement of shin and soe.

my altered ikebana arrangement to reflect the moribana basic slanting style

diana was extremely pleased with her efforts and was thrilled to be permitted to take it home to enjoy.

helen's, of course, was lovely.

there is so much to learn, and i am hungry for more!  fortunately, diana and i have another chance to work alongside helen, and she'll guide us through more freeform styles.

thank you, thank you, helen, for sharing yourself and your artistry with us. it is time well spent and much appreciated.

learn about our second lesson here.


  1. Beautiful & oh so interesting! I'm so intrigued. Where are you having this wonderful experience?

    1. at the davis shambhala center, where the kids and i go to meditate on sunday mornings. there were not enough older kids to put together a children's program session for this particular topic, but helen was quite willing to provide us with our own lesson when she came in for her rotation to design ikebana for the shrine room.

      the arrangements offer another focus for my senses while i'm in sitting meditation. natural beauty and simplicity gently assist in guiding my busy brain back to mindful quiet.

      helen is a wonderful woman, wonderful teacher. i'm glad we asked; i'm glad she said yes.