Ikebana teaches students about making right choices

Video Courtesy of Japan House at the University of Illinois

By Rohit Jammu, Assistant Features Editor

Ikebana is the Japanese art form of arranging flowers, but it directly translates to “making flowers alive.” A large variety of blossoms, leaves, stems and branches are used as materials for the art-making, as opposed to western practices of selectively arranging only flowers in a vase.

ARTD 299: Ikebana is a class offered to students of all majors at the University taught by Professor Kimiko Gunji. Professor Gunji first started taking Ikebana lessons when she was in high school in Japan. After coming to the U.S., she had an opportunity to teach Ikebana first through an extension class at the University, which later transitioned to her being able to teach through the Art & Design college at the University.

Ikebana arrangements are often comparable to sculpture. Carefully deliberated choices of color, line and form guide the assembly of a piece. The resulting pieces are unique, distinctive and unexpected.  Ikebana arrangements can vary drastically in terms of size and composition, ranging from a piece made with a single flower to one that incorporates several different flowers, stems and other natural objects.

Gunji said she thinks it’s the arranger’s responsibility to make flowers more beautiful and exciting.

“Flowers are beautiful without doing anything,” Gunji said. “So, if you are not making them more beautiful by arranging them, why arrange them at all?”

Gunji said she found teaching Ikebana in the U.S. challenging at first, since people in the U.S. are used to putting several flowers in a vase, whereas Ikebana only needs a few.

Ikebana brings out each flower’s beauty to the maximum. Even the empty space is an integral part of the arrangement.

“One of the headmasters of Ikebana said that with a spray of flowers, a bit of water, one evokes the vastness of rivers and mountains,” Gunji said.

Diana Liao, a graduate of the School of Information Science from the University, started off as a Japan House Assistant as a graduate student. Her familiarity with courses at the Japan House, which required meticulous setup and clean up, led to her being hired as Professor Gunji’s technical assistant. While ARTD 299 was not offered when she was an undergraduate, Liao got to take lessons with Gunji for ARTD 299: Japanese Aesthetics, where Professor Gunji guest-taught a class on Ikebana.

Liao works to facilitate the class’ online needs such as Zoom teaching, filming and scheduling. If they’re doing a virtual tea ceremony, which includes live streaming and a Q&A session, Liao makes sure everything is set up beforehand and ensures that everything runs smoothly so that the professor can teach without any interruptions.

“There’s a saying we often use in tea ceremony, which is ‘Ichi-go, ichi-e’ or ‘one lifetime, one opportunity’,” she said. “While in filming, there are often many takes and edits but with the traditional arts, we try to do everything in one take because it’s hard to ‘start and stop’ with something as singular as selecting and cutting the flower.”

Liao is still very new to Ikebana and she knows she still has a lot to learn. According to her, once you cut a flower, it’s bound to die soon, so being sure what you want to use is of paramount importance.

Liao related this idea of careful, preordained decision making to life in general.

“If you choose to make a decision, you need to carry it through with pure intent, respect others and nature, and only take what you need, subsequently helping everyone and everything flourish, rather than hindering or destroying,” Liao said.

While this might sound easy, Liao said many people don’t realize how careless they can be until they take the Ikebana class. She said that she has witnessed Professor Gunji tell students they can’t swarm the table of plant materials and grab whatever they want, emphasizing on the need to sit down and deliberate their choices in selection.

“Even with the physical process of selection, how often do you think about how you grab things?” she said.

“Flowers are delicate, and you can crush them in your fist if you aren’t gentle,” Liao said. “Professor Gunji can tell when students are upset or stressed outside of class because these details are evident in their arrangements, which she doesn’t hesitate from pointing out, which I deeply admire.”

While the class is currently being taught in an online capacity due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is quite the change of pace for Professor Gunji.  There’s a saying in Japanese that teaching must be done “kokoro to kokoro,” or “heart to heart,” so she is also learning how these living arts can change as many Japanese teachers typically do not do virtual lessons.

“One of my strongest ideals is to make the best from whatever you have, or you are given,” she said. “Even though online teaching, if you would put your whole heart into it, students can sense it and will be able to learn as much as they can if both teacher and students try their best if they both Ganbaru (or persevere).”

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