In a small storefront in Roslyn Heights, behind a screen of living bamboo, an ancient art is being kept alive. Ikebana, sometimes called Koda (the way of the flower), is a both a floral art and a way to heighten awareness and lift the spirit, says Toyomi Sobue, a petite woman with a gentle but confident voice who teaches the craft at the Long Island Japanese Culture Center, which she founded 12 years ago and now directs.
ABOUT THE CRAFT
An art form practiced since the 7th century, ikebana flower arrangements are more than just decorations. Meant to be living sculptures, a plant's lines, form and character take precedence over bunches of perfect blooms. A yellowed leaf might be the centerpiece in autumn, while unopened buds are often chosen in spring. Impermanence and imperfection are part of the presentation. It's all about the journey, from bud to leaf to bare branch. Sobue, who's been practicing the art for more than 40 years, points to one of her students' living sculptures proudly.
"Usually a Western arrangement is a hundred percent flowers," she says. "But here there are many spaces." An arrangement typically showcases sparse elements placed at different heights and angles. The top branches, Sobue says, represent sky. "Then there's trees and branches, and the ground is us and animals, and the water is the sea or the ground. So we want ikebana to show the whole world."
Alma Davis-Carlin, from Williston Park, creates floral arrangements professionally. She's studied for several years at the center, and notes that ikebana's flowers aren't types usually placed together.
This day, each student has three flowers, goldenrod, a few prickly thistles and some delicate branches covered in tiny blossoms.
"It's always a challenge to make it as beautiful as you can so that the full energy of the flowers is expressed," Davis-Carlin says. "And each one of us may have the same material and the same lesson, but each arrangement is going to be different. It's like our character, our personality, comes out."
A narrow celadon vase topped by swirling leaves and tall branches is anchored by yellow chrysanthemums in Patricia Lin's arrangement. Lin, the newest member of the group, has studied for about a year. She says that ikebana goes beyond the class.
"Sometimes you're driving on the road, even in the winter time, and you start looking at a branch. You look at how it grows in nature, in which direction it goes, the reflection of the light. You see beauty through that even when there's no flower. I love that part," she says.
Ten years of practicing ikebana has made Roslyn Harbor's Hiya Fellows' eye sharp. During a single lesson, she took apart her first arrangement and created two others. While she reveres the art form, she also makes it fit in the real world. With children and a cat at home, she'll take her flowers home and make a special arrangement — high up on a shelf. She often includes branches and flowers from her garden or her neighbor's. "Even little flowers, I appreciate," Fellows says. "I say thank you."
ABOUT THE CENTER
Sobue started the Japanese Culture Center with ikebana and calligraphy classes. It's grown to a full program with more than 20 teachers presenting cooking, yoga, karate, Japanese culture, language, tea ceremony, traditional dance, music lessons on koto and shamisen, and a "mommy and me" class with music and songs for mothers and children 1 1/2 to 5 years old. The center is open to everyone, with some classes free to try out before registering. You can also find the center at Stony Brook's annual Cherry Blossom Festival and North Hempstead's Asian-American Festival in May.
Sobue, who teaches and directs the center, says ikebana offers respite from busy lives, a way to slow down. "It gives a healing energy to be close to nature," she says. "Each single thing has spirit. In ikebana, we just help to show it a little."
Long Island Japanese Culture Center
55 Mineola Ave., Roslyn Heights and 2 Haven Ave. #223, Port Washington
INFO 516-801-6555, lijcc.org