HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. —Using a Lazy Susan, Emiko Suzuki spun around a large arrangement of blooming forsythia, noting the relative merits and drawbacks of the way the leggy branch rose from the container.
Suzuki, a senior professor in the art of Ikenobo Ikebana — the oldest school of the traditional Japanese discipline of flower arranging — led a workshop at the March 15 meeting of the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Ikenobo Ikebana Society of America.
“Through taking lessons, you can enjoy the simplicity of Japanese floral art and learn more about natural beauty by paying a lot of attention to the characteristics of individual plants,” Suzuki said.
Before the workshop at the chapter's most recent meeting — held in the fellowship hall of the First Congregational Church — Suzuki first demonstrated the shoka shimputai style, which stipulates use of only three distinct materials.
“This doesn't have a lot of rules, except you can only have three materials — but you could have a hundred stems,” Suzuki said, challenging her students to grasp what might seem like a contradictory statement.
To illustrate the shoka concept of the style's “one stem” rule, Suzuki volunteered three students to stand in a line facing the gathered students. With arms, heads or legs flared out in any direction, their lower torsos — or "stems" — remained “as one” in the grouping.
“This is shoka shimputai!” she said as the students teetered in formation.
Both local and tropical plant materials were available for the workshop, to combine in the tradition of the shoka shimputai style. For example, a pussy willow branch could be combined with chocolate anthurium and a small sprig of pine.
Suzuki noted that in Japan, instructors make you complete an arrangement within 10 seconds. She laughed off that particular rule, yet stressed the importance of spending a lot of time looking at the material before starting.
“Pick out the best side of the plant…that makes it easy because this is a very simple arrangement,” she says, examining the leggy branch of flowering yellow forsythia. Her students agreed with her that one side had more “movement.”
Suzuki also expanded on the concept of “mizugiwa” which, loosely, refers to the "waters edge" or the portion of the stem from the edge of the water, up to approximately two fingers' width in the shoka shimputai style.
“Just above the mizugiwa area you want to have a suggestion of ‘emerging life,’” Suzuki said. Beyond that stipulation, she added that all arrangements should have “drama.”
Lifetime of study
A native of Japan, Suzuki has lived in the western North Carolina since 2007. She started her study of ikebana in 1986, though for the initial five years she was limited to "freely" arranging flowers. She then undertook 16 years of lessons in traditional Ikenobo, the oldest school of traditional flower arranging.
Suzuki also has two master’s degrees, in education and in fine arts, from Western Carolina University. Unlike Western institutions, ikebana is not a discipline one “graduates” from — Suzuki continues to study through the Ikenobo headquarters in Kyoto.
Because she travels to Japan several times a year, Suzuki’s knowledge and what she passes on to her students is always up-to-date, said Beverly Barbour, president of the Blue Ridge Chapter.
Suzuki is also an instructor in the Japanese art of tea ceremony.
“I think that I not only developed a lot of perseverance and concentration throughout 30 years of ikebana lessons but also I have learned how wonderful nature is,” Suzuki said.
As a member of the Blue Ridge Chapter, Suzuki serves as advisor as well as a translator for visiting professors from Japan.
Monthly chapter meetings include demonstrations and sometimes workshops, when members can test their chops with a teacher present. Members often take private lessons, as well.
To advance to the level of teacher requires at least several years of devotion. Barbour, who is a professor in Ikenobo Ikebana, started her studies with a teacher in Atlanta from 1986-1991; she has studied with Suzuki since 2009.
“We are so fortunate to have such a talented teacher in this area,” said Barbour of Suzuki. “Ikebana used to be passed down verbally from teacher to student so we learn to have a special relationship of respect for our teacher.”
There are three main styles in Ikenobo Ikebana school: Free Style, Shoka and Rikka. “Rikka is, for me, the most interesting and varied style, Barbour said. “I never feel bored, as there is so much to learn.”
Ikenobo Ikebana stresses the natural beauty of plants, and the study is not just about the study of the arrangement of plant material and flowers but stresses the importance of empty space in an overall arrangement, according to Barbour.
“Our arrangements recognize the inner beauty of plants and we strive to include the beauty of the particular season,” she added.
There are more than 40 chapters in the U.S. and Canada of the international Ikenobo Ikebana Society. The Blue Ridge Chapter boasts about 50 members, drawing from all over western North Carolina and the Upstate.
Ikebana student Dede Walton worked with a just-budding maple branch she found in the parking lot where she works as the anchor for her arrangement at the workshop.
“This is an undertaking kind of like doing art,” said Walton, a Hendersonville resident who first studied ikebana for three years in south Florida, starting in 1987. “An artist may not be satisfied with their work right away.”
Walton believes studying ikebana is “really good for the spirit,” adding that she now sees landscape in a different way. After all, ikebana is a kind of reflection of natural landscapes.
“You really have to take your time and appreciate the qualities of the container and the emotion you’re trying to evoke,” she said.
Students of ikebana learn about the composition of elements but also develop an appreciation for Japanese culture and traditions, according to Barbour. Arrangements can be either simple and elegant or complex in nature.
“As a student, you will learn how to appreciate and really ‘see’ nature as you learn how different plants grow and develop,” Barbour said. “You will learn and enjoy peace and serenity as you ‘lose yourself’ in this beautiful Japanese art of flower arranging.”
At the March meeting, Suzuki recommended that the around 25 students present follow her around when she did the individual critiques. “It’s a good way to learn,” she said.
In introducing Suzuki, the Chapter’s vice president, Laura Felt, expressed her admiration for her, noting that Suzuki has completed 30 years of training, but only after five years of simply playing with flowers. “Emiko’s creativity in doing Free Style is just incredible,” Felt said.
As Suzuki deftly added a curve to a length of pussy willow, she explained that manipulating stems is completely permissible, to give the desired look. She also uses hand cream on green leaves to keep them moist.
“Before you start making the arrangement it’s a good idea to make an arrangement in your hand,” Suzuki said.
There are several upcoming ikebana-related events in the area. At Thursday’s April Blue Ridge Chapter meeting, Suzanne Dillingham will teach a workshop in the Free Style, using bottles.
On Saturday, as part of the Fine Art + Flora weekend at the Greenville County Museum of Art, Laura Felt will give a free ikebana demonstration from 1:30-3 p.m. Several arrangements created by members of the Blue Ridge Chapter will be on display. To register, visit gcma.org.
For those wanting to immerse themselves in the discipline in the birthplace of ikebana, Suzuki is leading a two-week tour of Japan in spring 2019 for chapter members. The trip will include sightseeing as well as a visit to the Kyoto headquarters of the school of Ikenobo Ikebana, where an annual exhibit and display of about 1,000 Ikebana takes place over a four-day period in April.
To learn more about the Ikenobo Ikebana Blue Ridge Chapter, visit blueridgeikebana.com or call 828-696-4103.