Thursday, 24 May 2012

Elephant No. 235: Ikebana

The spring and early summer flowers in my garden are so pretty right now that I thought I'd try making a small arrangement today in the shape of an elephant. I'm not sure this is quite elevated enough to be considered ikebana, but the intention is there.

The word "ikebana" comes from the Japanese words ikeru, meaning "keep alive or living", and hana, meaning "flower", and describes a form of minimalist floral arrangement.

The art of ikebana is thought to originate in the practice of offering flowers on an altar, which arrived in Japan with Buddhism during the seventh century A.D. By the middle of the fifteenth century, ikebana had emerged as a full-fledged artistic practice, and became enshrined in Japanese society.

Ikebana is more than simply pushing flowers into a vase. By definition, ikebana is a discipline that brings Nature and humanity together. Unlike floral arrangements which emphasize multicoloured arrangements of blossoms, ikebana often focuses on leaves, branches and other parts of the plant. Form, line and shape are far more important than colour, and ikebana can be somewhat stark in appearance.

Ikebana by Yoshiko Nakamura, Cherry Blossom Festival,
Seattle, U.S.A., 2008
Photo: Joe Mabel

Ikebana arrangements are usually structured in a loose triangular shape, with the three main points delineated by twigs. In some schools of thought, the three points represent heaven, earth and humankind; in others, they represent the sun, moon and earth. The choice of container is also often a key part of the composition.

There is a spiritual dimension to ikebana as well. Silence is considered a must, because ikebana is seen as a time to appreciate aspects of Nature that we often overlook in our busy lives. Ikebana is said to encourage people to become tolerant of differences in Nature and general life. It is also aimed at inspiring practitioners to identify with beauty in all forms of art.

There are a number of styles of ikebana. The earliest forms consisted of a tall central stem accompanied by two shorter stems. Later, more elaborate arrangements developed, with greater numbers of stems and branches. By the twentieth century, freestyle ikebana was added to the lexicon.

Today, ikebana arrangements often fall into one of the following modern styles:

Moribana upright style: This is the most basic structure in ikebana. Flowers are arranged in a shallow vase or basket, and are secured on metal spikes, or "floral frogs". Moribana literally means "piled-up flowers".

Moribana slanting style: This is a more gentle-looking arrangement than the upright style, often featuring branches that look best when placed in a slanted arrangement.

Nageire upright style: This is a very simple arrangement, often with only a single flower. The arrangement is placed upright in a tall, narrow-mouthed container. Nageire literally means "tossed in".

Nageire slanted style: Like the moribana slanting style, this is a gentler arrangement than the upright style. It is looser than the moribana equivalent, and is considered ideal for ikebana neophytes.

Nageire cascading style: The main stem hangs lower than the rim of the vase, and is often flexible to create nice lines. This is balanced with flowers in the main body of the design.

Guess which one I'm making.

I picked stems or branches of the following: bleeding heart, rose, Japanese tree peony, chives, mallow, perennial cornflower, lily of the valley, phlox and grapevine. I didn't really know what I'd need from all of that, but I thought it was better to have too much than too little. I was particularly interested in finding a curved woody branch that might serve as a trunk.

Next I tried to find suitable containers. I have far too many vases, but I more or less knew I'd need something relatively tall and narrow for the nageire cascading style I was going to attempt.

Because I've never tried ikebana before, my first attempts involved far too much greenery and far too many stems and branches. I was essentially trying to make a picture of an elephant with flowers and leaves, and it looked ridiculous. If you can see an elephant in the photograph below, you're doing better than I. And this was one of my more restrained efforts.

I fiddled with various vases, branches, stems, flowers and leaves for about 45 minutes before I realized the obvious: in ikebana, less is more. So I started over.

This time, I began with a single twig from a rosebush. It was too long when I started, so I trimmed it in increments until I liked the curve well enough. I would have liked a bit more curve and droop to the stem, but there were other qualities in the branch that I liked, so I stuck with this.

Next, I added a stem with a seed pod from a Japanese tree peony. I liked this because it functioned partly as an eye, and partly as a visual anchor for the arrangement.

I decided that this would be it for the head and trunk, so I now concentrated on the ear. For the ear, I wanted something floral, but not too dense or overwhelming, so I started with a few sprigs of lily of the valley.

I almost stopped there, then decided that I really wanted to add a bit of bleeding heart. I like the way bleeding heart droops—and had in fact originally thought of it for the trunk—so I inserted a stem in the ear area.

I almost stopped here again, then decided to add one more stem of bleeding heart and be done with it. After I added the second stem, I found it almost impossible to stop fiddling with the placement of the flowers in the ear. I think I tried about four or five different configurations before I was relatively happy with it.

Those who know me know that I'm not really a less-is-more kind of girl, so this is incredibly restrained for me. I don't normally gravitate towards minimalist anything. That being said, I actually enjoyed trying this. It's a quiet sort of activity, and forces you to think in terms of single lines to represent something far more complex.

I'm sure anyone who knows a thing or two about ikebana will laugh at my efforts, and rightly so. It hardly looks like an elephant at all, unless you're told what it is. Even then, it's like a piece of post-modern art that needs a label for it to make sense. Still, I think I would try this again—now that I know not to throw in everything, including the kitchen sink.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Making elephants entirely of flowers is an enduring tradition in India. Although these are usually smallish elephants made of flowers such as marigolds, zinnias and daisies, occasionally someone will make a life-sized elephant with more expensive or exotic blooms.

For the 2008 Dasara Flower Show in Mysore, an elephant measuring 3.6 metres (12 feet) in height was produced by floral artist M. Kalidas and his team from Bangalore. Inspired by the decorated elephants that take part in the yearly Dasara procession, Kalidas decided to produce a life-sized replica, including a howdah with a model of the goddess Chamundeshwari inside, also made of flowers.

It took 60,000 roses—at a cost of more than 600,000 rupees ($10,700 U.S.)—to make the elephant, along with the work of 13 people for three full days.

Elephant made with 60,000 roses, Dasara Flower Show, Mysore, India, 2008.
Photo: M.A. Sriram

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

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