Renewable Resources: Ikebana
+ Bamboo Connect Heart with Soul
By: Louise Glickman
Photos and Ikebana by Patti Quinn Hill
It’s elemental to environmental artist Carol Stangler that the earth provides the needs of the universe and humans. Her life has been dedicated to appreciating natural growing materials and to protecting our earth’s treasures through environmental activism. Her study of Eastern religions brought her naturally to looking at plant materials through an artist’s eyes to create fine craft: basketry first, then sculpture, stick furniture and accessories for the home and, more recently, dry stack stone walls for stream bank remediation.
Hand-in-glove, Stangler tilled the earth from early childhood with her father, a grower and landscape designer in upstate New York. Thus, her life-long love of gardens and their bounty was born. But it is her art, nurtured through a strong line of craftswomen that brought life’s rewards of sustaining oneself through hard work and creative talents. Stangler’s grandmother braided amazing rugs that today grace her intimate stone-clad cottage in Montford. Her mother’s craft, sewing, has manifested in her appreciation of fabrics and textures found in the small handmade objects adorning her shelves and reflecting her lifestyle and interests. This unique combination of forces opened her eyes to the possibilities that have today combined the permanence of bamboo with the ephemeral nature of Japanese flower design, ikebana.
Her adventures with bamboo and her love of ikebana, a new practice for Stangler, were initially nurtured in travels to Japan over twenty years ago. Through her friendship with a Japanese Buddhist monk Konomo Utzumi and a subsequent trip to his country with other environmental activists, she learned the techniques and obtained the basic tools that allowed her to fashion bamboo into functional forms for daily use. In Japan, ikebana first stirred within her, but it would take several decades of traveling and teaching to actively engage in ikebana lessons with local sensei Terri Ellis Todd. Stangler was intrigued by ikebana as an art form. Having known only the ubiquitous American FTD style of flower arranging—a tight, dense, round bouquet of blooms stuck in a tall, upright vase—Japanese flower design techniques offered a welcome respite with its strong architectural lines and open areas of negative space.
An ancient art, ikebana began with sixth-century priests offering flowers to Buddha and today includes a number of schools that apply variations in form and design to their artistic expression. Stangler feels challenged by ikebana in a good way. In the Japanese traditions, the lessons are structured and precise. Among other qualities, the art form teaches designers to change their focus from just looking at flowers in bloom to studying the whole plant— observing the natural way it grows, the shape and subtle colors of its foliage, the possibility of its stems as line material.
For Stangler, combining ikebana with bamboo also evokes the partnering of spiritual practice with daily living. Studying Kundalini yoga and meditation with Guru Maharaji in her early twenties, and later Zen Buddhism, she approached life and art simply, creating her sculptural basketry with simple tools, clippers, and nature’s bountiful kudzu and other vines. She built a career combining classroom teaching with community and commercial art endeavors.
It was meant to be that Stangler discovered groves of bamboo near a slow-moving river in Georgia and held it in her mind for almost ten years before ideas immerged as to how she could best incorporate its beauty into her work. Impressed by bamboo’s vibrant, tall culms reaching for the sun and its boundless energy, she worked with community volunteers to create the Earthball (10-foot diameter) for the City of Atlanta’s Earthday 1990 celebration. Her tool of choice became a crude bamboo-cutting device that split the bamboo culms, allowing them to be bent into a magical, spherical framework.
Bamboo is naturally suited to ikebana. Its bright green surface embodies the freshness and vitality of the growing world. Its hollow, cylindrical form makes a natural container, either vertically or horizontally; an upright container suggests straightforwardness and endurance. Hung on a wall, a bamboo container allows the plant material to gracefully flow downward in a pleasing arc. A bamboo container may have double or triple openings to incorporate different flower designs to form one complete composition.
Similarities emerge in the desire to bring bamboo and ikebana into union. Harvesting the bamboo is for those who enjoy getting physical and interacting with nature in its unbridled state. Winter and very early spring are the best times for gathering, when growth is complete for the year and roots and culms are in their resting cycle.
At the same time of year, flowers and plant materials for ikebana also emerge from their rest with daffodils and jonquils, grasses and ferns peeking from the earth in spring. Executive Master Elaine Jo of the Ichiyo School of Ikebana in Atlanta defines this phenomena: “In the winter as we sleep and wake up each day, the earth is quietly preparing for that moment when we delight to shoots of greenery coming up in our gardens. The transition to spring quickly becomes dramatic and soon the world is green and beautiful again.”
Careful exploration is rewarded with the use of simple tools like a machete or splitting knife for bamboo, and gardening shears for line and plant materials used in ikebana. With training, bamboo containers are created by careful planning, imaginatively nurtured by understanding the flower designs to be contained within.
Garr Reynolds, a practicing Buddhist and blogger, reminds us of the Zen principle to find wisdom in emptiness. One learns that the first true step to learning is emptying ourselves of preconceived notions, that one cannot fill a cup which is already full. The hollow inside of bamboo reminds us that we are often too full of ourselves and our own conclusions. When you empty your mind of your prejudices, pride and fear, you become open to the possibilities; so too, in ikebana.
Often called the way of the flower or Kado in Japanese, ikebana calls this virtue the selfless mind. Meditation with plant materials trains one to clear the chatter of daily mundane thoughts, cluttered environments and technical distractions. As they face their flowers, practitioners of ikebana free their mind and focus on using natural elements in simple yet powerful designs of beauty. This is perhaps the first and hardest lesson of ikebana. Learned well and practiced often, it creates a meditation of the mind in simply looking at nature, often with a different eye and through years of experience.
Carol Stangler developed her love of ikebana through a life’s journey of creating art with nature. On June 26, she will demonstrate how bamboo can be crafted into beautiful vessels for ikebana arrangements. She will present a slideshow of classic and contemporary bamboo containers and demonstrate tools and techniques to make containers from bamboo. Patti Quinn Hill, teacher of the Ichiyo school of Ikebana, and Patsy Beyer, teacher of the Sogetsu school of Ikebana, will then create arrangements using bamboo containers. This program, sponsored by Ikebana International of Asheville, is free and open to the public at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway at 10 am.
Carol Stangler is the author of The Craft and Art of Bamboo, 30 Eco-Friendly Projects to Make for Home & Garden. Lark Books, 2008.
Louise Glickman is a publicist and artist who has studied ikebana for six years with sensei Terri Grant Todd of Barnardsville. She handles public relations for Ikebana International of Asheville and will be traveling to Tokyo this May for the 10th World Convention.
Ikebana International offers educational and cultural programs on the fourth Tuesday of each month from February through October, generally at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, starting at 10 am.
Tuesday, June 26 , 10 am at the Folk Art Center presented by Ikebana International of Asheville
“Inspirations Using Bamboo” with environmental artist Carol Stangler
For more information on Ikebana Asheville: Contact Patti Quinn Hill, Chapter President, 828-712-6633; firstname.lastname@example.org and www.ikebanaasheville.org. For more information on Ikebana International refer to www.ikebanahq.org