TRANSFORMING TRASH INTO TREASURES: Sogetsu ikebana as a means of expression

When people use the phrase “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure,” it often refers to someone’s desire to collect unusual items.

For an ikebanist, however, this trash can make up the final component of a beautiful piece of art.

“We always look out for things … that you can incorporate with fresh material or that become another new life and present a new artform,” said Ikebana International San Francisco Bay Area Chapter President Thanh Nguyen.

UNEXPECTED ART — Joan Suzuki stands next to her ikebana arrangement that was displayed at the 2013 Ikebana International Biannual Flower Show on March 16. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

UNEXPECTED ART — Joan Suzuki stands next to her ikebana arrangement that was displayed at the 2013 Ikebana International Biannual Flower Show on March 16. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

Founded in 1927 by Sofu Teshigahara, Sogetsu not only teaches its students the usefulness of manmade materials in their arrangements, but also emphasizes modern and contemporary styles through individual expression.

The use of these non-natural materials originated with Teshigahara, who used discarded lumber, burned wood and other debris from the World War II damage in Tokyo in his arrangements, according to Sogetsu teacher and Sogetsu San Francisco Bay Area Branch School Advisor Joan Suzuki.

Suzuki, who has been teaching Sogetsu ikebana since 1953, said she still remembers when Teshigahara came to the San Francisco County Fair Building in 1956 to do ikebana demonstrations. He used a large ashtray as a container for his outside arrangement, incorporating branches from his surroundings as well.

Today, Suzuki said members of the Sogetsu San Francisco Bay Area branch, which is celebrating its 40-year anniversary this year, participate in outdoor activities to expand learning opportunities.
“One of our outdoor projects (that) Sogetsu had last year was we went to a recycle center to look for the material and we had a great time,” she said.

Sogetsu student Tori Powers, an 18-year-old who studies under June Matsuoka, said she finds other people’s use of non-natural materials to be interesting.

“I really like the way people use a lot of different materials, not just the natural materials but sometimes even the very manmade materials,” said the 10-year ikebana student. “People can do some really interesting things with that.”

Sogetsu ikebanists don’t incorporate only used materials in their pieces. Suzuki said she often goes to hardware stores to find materials for her arrangements. This fits with the Sogetsu motto: You can use anything, anywhere and anytime.

In addition to its original use of materials in arrangements, Sogetsu also stresses the use of each student’s creative abilities.

Nguyen said she studied at both Wafu School and Sogetsu and liked what each school had to teach her.

“I love the traditional look (of Wafu), the naturalistic way of presenting the plant material,” she said. “I love Sogetsu because it frees you to design your own personality.”

Current Sogetsu San Francisco Bay Area Branch Director Ron Brown said Sogetsu sets itself apart from the other more traditional ikebana schools because of its emphasis on design freedom.

“We do, in the beginning, have the set patterns because that’s how you learn color, angles, form and function,” said the teacher, who has been studying Sogetsu ikebana for 34 years. “But beyond that, the whole idea, even in the preparatory lessons, is to get you to the point where you are as creative as you can be.”

Powers’ grandmother, Betty Jetter, said she likes doing ikebana because of the way she can express herself as an artist.

“It’s a way to express yourself artistically and it’s also a way to meet a lot of really nice people,” she said.

Jetter introduced Powers to ikebana when Powers was young. After meeting Matsuoka, Jetter said, Powers wanted to learn the art. Matsuoka has been teaching Powers ikebana in monthly classes ever since.

Jetter said Powers has already surpassed her in skill.

“I’m happy with where she is and she’s doing what she loves and what more could you ask,” Jetter said.

Powers received her ikebana teaching certificate after graduating from high school in June of 2012, which gives her the potential to teach her own classes. Right now, however, Powers is focusing most of her time studying glass blowing at the California College of the Arts.

Matsuoka, who has been studying ikebana since 1956, said she has a lot of hope in Powers.

“We can’t find too many young people so (I think Tori) is the future of Sogetsu school,” she said.

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