There's more to this ancient art form than first meets the eye
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
October 15, 2012
Ikebana Master Anna Nakada arranges flowers during a demonstration highlighting an ancient form of Japanese art. The flowers and branches she used were culled from the Dickinson campus.
The master stood at the front of room, her tiny frame dwarfed by the broad table in front of her. Clad entirely in black, she focused a trained eye on a tree branch she'd taken pains to select earlier that day. It was almost perfect—almost.
Deftly, she bent the young wood to not-yet-breaking, until it curved into an obedient, elegant arc. She smiled.
In Anna Nakada's hands, it looked easy, but there were decades of intensive study behind that simple manipulation. Like a martial-arts sensei, Nakada had trained rigorously and risen through the ranks to become a certified master of ikebana, the ancient Japanese art of flower arranging. She came to Dickinson Oct. 12 to share the philosophy, history and aesthetics of her work.
Ikebana (lit. "flowers kept alive") originated in sixth-century Japan as an expression of the beauty of nature; originally, Buddhist priests created the artful arrangements as offerings to the spirits of the dead. By the mid-15th century, ikebana was officially recognized in Japan as a high-art form, but it would be two more centuries before the merchant classes were permitted to practice it. Today, more than 2,000 schools of ikebana are registered with the Japanese government; Nakada is a master of the ichiyo ("one leaf") school, which takes into account the environment in which the arrangement will be displayed and the personal expression of the arranger.
Working in the Stern Center Great Room before a live audience, Nakada created several arrangements, using natural materials she'd gathered on campus with help from Randall Nenninger, manager of grounds and landscape services; Arborist Mike Shaffer; and Master Gardener Anne Dailey. Her two-hour demonstration, sponsored by the Department of East Asian Studies, was accompanied by an Waidner-Spahr Library exhibition of arrangements created by members of the Harrisburg chapter of Ikebana International. Nakada also fashioned a special arrangement to be included in a current exhibition at The Trout Gallery titled The Floating World: Ukiyo Prints From the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.
As she created her ephemeral sculptures, Nakada explained that each piece in the arrangements represented an element of nature. She also spoke about the role of asymmetry in Japanese art; the proper composition of color, depth and height; the interplay between tradition and personal expression; and the discipline it takes to draw out expressions of nature that are as economically eloquent as nature itself.
"Ikebana is about selection," she said of the painstaking process. "You have the whole world before you, and you select from it. Then you select, select and select again."
The wabi connection
That was a familiar concept to students in Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Alex Bates' and Professor of Political Science and East Asia Studies David Strand's Japanese-language and East Asian-cultures classes. The professors encouraged their students to attend the demonstration and reflect on the relationships between the Zen Buddhist philosophies and many of those arts. They also discussed the aesthetics of those arts, including wabi—a style of calm austerity—and the painstaking, mindful practice of achieving it.
Biology major Jiantao Fu '15, a native of China who is studying intermediate Japanese this semester, was particularly interested in that concept. After the ikebana presentation, he reflected on the cultural earmarks he detected in the deliberate, quiet way in which Nakada worked.
"I could see connections between Chinese and Japanese cultures, and that was interesting," he said. "Ikebana evokes its own aesthetic, but it's a little like Chinese calligraphy—you need to sit still and concentrate for very long periods of time … Experiences [such as these] give us us another way of learning Japanese—not only the language but the culture behind it."