“Not many people know about ‘ikebana,’” said Megumi Schacher as I enter her home studio in the verdant Brier neighborhood. One of her two cats languishes in a chair near an arrangement of tall irises and other foliage in a shallow container. A large collection of vessels lines the multiple shelves along one wall. “When I was a kid, I saw my mom doing ‘ikebana,’” Schacher recalled fondly. “I remember one day she [worked with] gladioli in a unique way.” That memory stayed with the 20-year veteran and instructor of this Japanese art form, one she describes as similar to “drawing or painting on a canvas.” Born in the Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, Schacher studied fashion and worked for a kimono manufacturing company in the graphic design department — both in Tokyo. She also studied at the Art Institute of Seattle.
Literally, “ike” in Japanese means water, but can also mean live (as in living), according to Shacher. “Bana” (hana) refers to flowers. “Ikeru,” a related word, means to change or to create. Historically, classical ikebana dates back some 600 years when flowers arranged by Buddhist monks were offered to the dead at altars. Older paintings depicted these simple arrangements of flowers and branches, which were then used as models, or “kata,” as the art form evolved. Later ikebana arrangements were typically found inside the home, perhaps in an alcove or a tatami room. Ikebana schools (developed from the late 15th century) still use such models. In modern Japan, ikebana arrangements by renowned masters might be displayed more ostensibly in a hotel lobby or a department store window.
The Sogetsu school, the style practiced by Shacher, was founded 83 years ago and gained popularity after World War II. Its philosophy of “anywhere, any material, any container” fit with the changing times and lifestyles of Japan and elsewhere. Although Sogetsu also uses kata, the freestyle component allows for more personal creativity and expression. (The Seattle area has 19 different schools of practice.) Rather than recreating nature’s surroundings like other schools, the Sogetsu style involves manipulating the plant materials — by bending stems, cutting branches, and creating a fixture as a stabilizing base. Even stapling is a standard practice.
The “nageire” is one such kata that Schacher teaches in her classes. The term means to “throw together” and was created as a “chabana” or floral arrangement for the Japanese tea ceremony. The materials are varied, but often utilize hardy tree branches and flowers that form a triangle once arranged. Considerable skill and physical strength are an overlooked aspect of ikebana arranging, as young hardwoods are difficult to cut through and plants are altered from its natural shape. The cutting of the branches is also done at a particular angle to match the dimensions of the container and to act as a stabilizer inside the vase. Flower stems are manually bent to create a desired line but must not be overly manipulated beyond its capabilities. Thus, knowledge of the materials adds another dimension to the process.
“We’re taking plants from the outside [and] we’re killing it by cutting it. Then we bring it inside and give it another energy, more beauty than [when it was] outside. That’s the responsibility for us [to make it beautiful] because we’re killing [the plants],” said Schacher.
She believed that the younger generation (including Japanese and Asian Americans) may have a more limited understanding of ikebana than their parents or grandparents. Even young women in Japan, whose mothers and grandmothers practiced it as an indispensable household skill, may not necessarily have learned the craft as women’s roles have continually evolved. While the Western style of flower arranging involves filling space with color and mass (imagine the classic wedding bouquet), the element of line is a third and crucial element of Sogetsu and other schools of ikebana, says Schacher. Thus, one finds more open space in ikebana that is comparatively sparser — one might call it minimalist — than its Western counterpart.
Through demonstrations, classes and other events, Schacher hopes to expose more people to this three-dimensional art form using plant materials. Last June, she collaborated on floral art interpretations of works at the Tacoma Art Musem. She also teaches interactive ikebana classes — including those held at KOBO at Higo in Seattle’s International District, North Bellevue Community Center on the Eastside, Swanson’s Nursery near Ballard and her home studio near Lynnwood. “Touch it and try it. Ikebana is so much fun,” she said.
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