, I used to draw, I was 9 years old, and we had just moved from Fairfileld, Iowa to Zinder, Niger. Both small towns, but I guess that's where the similarities end. Nothing in my short life had prepared me for what I now can label as culture shock. I suddenly stuck out everywhere I went like a sore thumb. I didn't speak the language. I remember the first day my brother and I showed up in our new school- a one-room-classroom with an eccentric teacher who liked to wear pastel colored sweaters tied around his shoulders (we're in the sweltering Sahara desert here folks), a room full of students of every hue and background. But none of them spoke my language. Sitting at the back of the classroom, trying to extract meaning from gesticulations and to decipher the unfamiliar sounds and syllables- I was completely lost.
And so I drew. There were many drawings of a little girl, very white, very blonde, perhaps standing in front of a little home, or in a field of flowers. There might have been a cat or a dog. My brother and I were allowed two pet turtles, we named them Minnie and Moe (catch a tiger by his toe) and they lived in a chicken wire enclosure under the one tree in our yard. Which was actually a giant sand box. Which was actually the best yard in the world.
My mother encouraged the drawing. At one point I had a teacher, a young French lady (who had studied at the Sorbonne!) who taught me how to draw careful lines with a Rotring ink pen over washes of watercolor. I don't think I had any particular aptitude for drawing, but surely what mattered more was that I had an encouraging parent, and especially that the drawing helped me feel less adrift in my confusing world. Maybe through the drawing I could uncover clues as to who I was and what I was experiencing.
Flash forward a decade or so and I am about to drop out of a full scholarship ride to one of the top private liberal arts colleges in the US. I have taken a semester off and am waiting tables at a sushi restaurant managed by the most oppressive, chauvinistic Korean-American man this side of the Mississippi. Ultimately I don't drop out, but choose instead to switch majors from anthropology to art. And through the following years, as I struggle to yet again make sense of my life , to break through to this terrible thing called 'adulthood', the process of making art becomes an anchor in stormy seas.
Again, I go back to my mother. How can the value of her consistent encouragement be quantified? And I feel undeserving of the priceless gift of having absorbed, during the 15 years we lived in Japan, a perspective which recognizes the practice - be it tea, ikebana, or a martial art- as a life long path of limitless self-discovery.
And so I draw. There is this thing going on right now on Instagram called the #100dayproject. I have no idea how many people are currently engaged in the project, but as of 4:15 pm on May 8th, 2018, there are 402,714 posts using this hashtag. The idea is a simple one: take any creative project, something small and sustainable, and do it, just a little bit, every day. Who cares if you are 'good' or 'bad' at it, just show up, and learn to fall in love with the process.
My journal of plants a month or so into the #100dayproject
It has been quite a while since my last post- the first few months of 2018 I have been on a winter sabbatical of sorts- taking time to refill the well; to allow time and space for new inspiration and new directions.
One of those new inspirations has been my dear friend Lauren of Kinnabari Tea House in Salt Lake. It was a joy to share an ikebana workshop in the teahouse in December, and ever since I have been a huge fan of the deeply connecting and soul-nourishing experience of the community tea gatherings at Kinnabari. I have also had the joy of creating ceramic teabowls for Kinnabari- you can see some of my pots and find out more about the monthly community tea gatherings here .
For my birthday in January, I bought myself a new book: "the Nature Fix" by Florence WIlliams. Described as an 'intrepid investigation into nature's restorative benefits', through a skillful weaving of current research from around the globe, the book makes an eloquent case that time in nature is not a luxury but is in fact essential to our humanity. The book is at once entertaining and highly urgent- we live in an era where as a human race, we have grown shockingly distant from our natural environment.
A month or so later, I watched the documentary 'Rivers and Tides' and discovered the art and work of Andy Goldsworthy., a British artist known for his site-specific installations involving natural materials and the passage of time.
I realized I was being called to bridge the mental gap between the two main loves of my life: the oudoors, and art. What if the principles of ikebana (impermanence, the one unrepeatable moment of the encounter, learning from the materials) could be applied in a totally different context? I was drawn to play with snow and icicles on frosty mornings, fallen pine cones under massive ponderosas, dead pinon pine branches, rocks ( more pictures here) .
Instead of obsessively snapping pictures of all the beauty I found in nature, over the past couple of months, I have been coming back to the practice of drawing as a means of seeing. I will not bore you with all the details, but I wish to invite you to join me in exploring the space between creativity/art and the outdoors in the form of two very special workshops.
Hey all! This time of the year has me thinking about how much pressure our society puts on us to be 'good consumers' and how I feel about this as a maker/artist. A recent New York Times article on "The Rise of Modern Ikebana" also sparked an interesting on-line debate with fellow ikebanists about pure art vs. applied art. Wikipedia offers the following definition of pure or fine art: "a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic and intellectual purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness", and in contrast, an applied or decorative art traditionally encompasses the crafts and items that are functional. But neither of these approaches really apply to the Japanese concept of the traditional arts.
Ultimately the traditional arts in Japan have been seen as a path (literally speaking, ikebana is termed 'the way of flowers', and there is 'the way of tea', etc), an often life-long journey upon which the practitioner embarks. Along the way one will encounter many opportunities for growth of a mostly spiritual nature: humility, persistence, dedication, discipline and the like. Yes, the practitioner will be making things along this path, but the focus is taken away from this act of producing (and selling) and shifted inward instead.
For a deeper look into the Japanese perspective on the arts, I'd like to share this short video about my lovely teacher, Nagai Yuuyou, with whom I studied in Tokyo for 8 years. I also wrote many essays on this topic during the years I was blogging in Japan.
2010- one of many certifications on the path towards being a 'master ikebanist'
In conclusion, Ikebana has been practiced in Japan over the past 500 years mainly as a means of self-betterment, quite separate from the realm of commercial applications. This has allowed it to remain pure and true to it's traditional roots, but also poses challenges for those ikebana artists who wish to find more ways of applying their skills in a modern society which tends to value things to which one can assign monetary value.
On a personal note, when I started Petal & Clay a year ago, I quickly had to identify that my motivation was essentially to create a vehicle through which I could share my passion for ikebana and Japanese arts with the local community. Money has not been a big factor. I am aware that I am in a privileged situation to be able to have such a perspective, but I also think it is a double-edged sword: we need art for art's sake, and yet our society also needs to value the work and role artists play in creating a space where such 'inner work' is cultivated, and in which those benefits are also shared with the community at large.
Those of you who know me also know that I have issues self-identifying as an artist, which is compounded by the fact that ikebana is pretty much an unknown art in these parts of the world, and also an art that is completely impermanent. Ikebana cannot really be sold, and it is here today and gone tomorrow...
But that's a topic for another time I think!
Less is more: ikebana using dried hydrangea in vintage Japanese vase
I have to admit that we were a bit dismayed with Park City style when we moved here from Japan in 2014. I have nothing against lycra and lululemon, we're talking beds made out of logs, and dark, ponderous, over-sized homes. Not that all Japanese live in perfectly minimalist zen homes (we've all embraced Marie Kondo's 'Magic Art of Tidying Up' right?), but in general the Japanese aesthetic tends towards light and bright, and small. But I diverge, to be fair, Parkites are a sophisticated group as well, and the trend is definitely moving away from the outdated log-home inspired decor of the 90's to a more modern and contemporary feel.
Case in point was the amazing home by Blackdog Builders in the recent Park City Showcase of Homes. Full of unique details, clean, modern design and unique artistic touches, the home is truly a sight to behold. And lucky me, this was to be my backdrop for ikebana for the two weekends of the event.
Since Ikebana is delicate and usually needs to be made on site, and hence is created specifically to resonate with its surroundings, this was a perfect match.
Earlier this month I had an invitation from dear friend and co-conspirator Dana Levy to join her for a silent yoga retreat in southern Utah. Dana was participating as a yoga therapy teacher with Inbody Academy and suggested that an Ikebana workshop might be a nice addition to the retreat activities. One can't say no to such invitations, so I packed my bags and we hit the road. Being my first such experience, I had few expectations and was simply grateful to be able to spend some restorative time in one of my favorite places on earth.
Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch is an ideal setting for such a retreat- remote (no cell reception!), peaceful, and surrounded by the pristine wilderness of Escalante National Monument. We meditated, practiced yoga, ate delicious home-cooked vegan meals, and practiced the art of non-verbal communication (at least until the last evening). We took time to notice things like the sound of the birds singing at dawn and twilight, the smell of the sagebrush, and the feel of the first rays of sun warming us on a chilly morning.
And we practiced Ikebana. As Ikebana is essentially a spiritual practice; a means of joining human mind/heart with nature, I was particularly looking forward to incorporating it into the context of yoga. My own journey with yoga started in childhood growing up as part of the Transcendental Meditation community in Fairfield, Iowa. My grandmother taught me how to meditate at the age of 12 and at our school, Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, we meditated every day with our teachers, and did asanas in gym class. However, as one often does with gifts one is granted in childhood, I largely took these experiences for granted as I grew up, and it wasn't until my late 30's that I got back to yoga in earnest, studying with the amazing Dominica Serigano and Dana Levy in Tokyo. Yoga became a path back to my body after birthing and caring for 3 babies, a means of rediscovering the innate intelligence of the body/mind, and a way to cultivate mindful presence in my ever-busy life.
I've often thought about how yoga (and martial arts, to a lesser extent) seems to be the only eastern tradition to have truly taken hold in our western society. Through yoga we begin to reorient ourselves towards process vs. product, we come back to the mat day after day, we engage in the practice and all the repetition that entails over years, understanding that the rewards are gradually revealed as we continue our journey. Ikebana, and all the traditional Japanese arts, all share the same intrinsic qualities of a spiritual path to self-discovery. We don't expect mastery to come instantly, and the longer we pursue the path, often the less we know. Our hard-won insights are a joy that one has difficulty conveying to others. But it does bring joy, and very simply, that's why we pursue it!
Being able to introduce ikebana to the wonderful yogis at the retreat was a joyful experience for me.
We walked the grounds around the ranch. studying every tree and shrub, gathering only what was needed, noticing how each plant grew in this unique landscape of high desert. When we arranged our foraged treasure, and brought what was outdoors into the indoors, we noticed it differently. Each creation was a unique reflection of the heart/mind of the person who created it. A moment's encounter between human and nature. It doesn't last. Flowers fade and leaves wilt. But there is such beauty in impermanence, and there is such beauty in this moment, right now.
In mid March I had the pleasure to visit San Francisco and the Bay Area for a few days. The de Young Museum, one of the museums in Golden Gate Park, has been hosting the annual Bouquets to Art exhibit for over 3 decades now. Not only has this exhibit been a major fundraiser for the municipal museums, but it also has proven a very effective means of, in the museum Director Max Hollein's words "engaging visitors in new, innovative ways outside and within our walls."
The premise of the exhibit is to invite over 100 floral designers from the Bay Area to choose a piece from the museum's permanent collection and to create a floral installation that resonates with that particular artwork. It was my first time to view such an exhibit, and having come from years of viewing the outstanding Sogetsu Ikebana exhibits in Tokyo, I did not come with any particular expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and sophistication of the designs, and the crowds of enthusiastic visitors testified to the success of this exhibit in achieving its mission of bringing a wider audience into the museum.
In addition to the double dose of inspiration from both the artwork and the floral designs, I also discovered a new artist whose work really resonated with me. Ruth Asawa was a mid-century Japanese-American artist known for her abstract wire sculptures and her public service and arts education activism in the Bay Area. I was struck by how her delicate woven wire sculptures exist in a space, not separate, but in conversation with their surroundings.
I was interested in it because of the economy of a line, making something in space, enclosing it without blocking it out. It’s still transparent. I realized that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line because a line can go anywhere.
This principle of non-separation, of existing as part of an organic whole, is in my opinion one of the most beautiful principles of Ikebana.
I hope you enjoy a few pictures of some of my favorite pieces of the exhibit.
From January 12th through March 9th the Park City Library hosted a display of my Ikebana creations paired with some books they ordered especially for this project. It was a wonderful opportunity to share my passion for Ikebana with a wider audience and hopefully introduce this unique Japanese art to a wide audience who may have never been exposed to it before.
From a personal perspective, it was a valuable learning opportunity to design for a certain space, season and theme, and especially to see how long the materials could last. I had to adapt as I went along as it became evident that a two week period was really not possible to keep the materials alive- half way through I switched to once a week and tried to get in in-between as well to refresh the arrangement.
Each week I chose a different written passage to complement the arrangement- these ranged from haiku to writings by Sofu Teshigahara (Sogetsu Ikebana founder) to western poets. One of my favorites was a haiku that a friend composed especially for my arrangement (thanks Billy!).
Although this was done on an essentially anonymous volunteer basis it had great value to me as a learning experience and it was especially rewarding that someone who saw the display but had never been previously exposed to Ikebana sought me out and ended up coming to one of my Ikebana classes.
Alrhough the project has come to an end, there is an open door to do something similar again in the future. I am grateful for the support of such a wonderful library that actively promotes the arts in service of community.
Lara Chho was raised as a global citizen, living all over the US and Africa as a child and youth, and living in Japan from 1998 and 2013 where she met her husband and raised her 3 children. She has been exploring clay since 1992 and flowers since 2006. She is passionate about using the arts as a means for self-discovery and for building community.