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A meditation on Japanese flower arranging comes to Farmingdale

Yoshie Takahashi, a four-decade practitioner of ikebana, creates

Yoshie Takahashi, a four-decade practitioner of ikebana, creates a traditional Japanese flower arrangement using red maple branches at the Farmingdale Cultural Arts Day on Sept. 16. Credit: Marisol Diaz-Gordon

n a table against a white backdrop on the Farmingdale Village Green on a recent Sunday, Yoshie Takahashi arranged three red maple branches cut from her own garden. In silence, she added late-summer blooms — large, full chrysanthemums, smaller “pompom” flowers, carnations — to a ceramic vase.

Takahashi has been studying ikebana, the meditative art of Japanese flower arrangement, in the style of ikenobo for more than four decades. She has led workshops and shown her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and the Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay. In October, she will share her knowledge with Long Islanders through two workshops at Farmingdale Village Hall.

“To me, floral arrangement is [a] kind of meditation,” said Takahashi, a native of Japan who lives in Plainview and teaches Japanese as an adjunct professor at Hofstra University. “It’s becoming myself.”

Ikebana is rooted in the floral offerings placed on the altars in ancient Buddhist temples. The art became part of the education of the samurai class, said Gerry Senese, who, with his wife, Hiroko Uraga, directs the Japan Center at Stony Brook University and has given ikebana workshops and demonstrations at Long Island libraries.

A meditative art

“The Zen philosophy of trying to understand the essence of nature, and of themselves, was brought into play in the flower arrangements,” he said of the samurai. “They had to have a serenity of mind, and they had to be able to center themselves and calm themselves down, in order to make an arrangement that is beautiful and also simple in its nature.”

Though the word “ikebana” itself translates to “living flowers,” the art appreciates the offerings of each of the seasons.

“What it was, was an art form in which nature and humanity were brought together,” Senese said.

Vicki Gruber, a member of the Farmingdale Village Cultural Arts Committee, invited Takahashi to lead the October workshops after developing a personal interest in ikebana. The committee works to bring diverse cultural programming to the village; Takahashi’s recent demonstration took place at the village’s annual Cultural Arts Day.

“We live in a melting pot here in New York, and we have people from different cultures, and it’s always nice to learn from other cultures,” Gruber said. “It helps to bring people together, especially today; everything is so polarized.” Past programs have included medieval weaponry demonstrations, a lecture on the Long Island trolley (which predated the Long Island Rail Road), and a local cemetery tour.

In ikebana, flowers, branches and grasses are held together inside a vase by a kenzan, also known as a “pin frog.” Like a bed of nails, Senese explained, the kenzan holds materials in place at various angles.

Today, there are hundreds of different ikebana schools in Japan, the oldest on record dating to 1500, he said.

The ikebana aesthetic changes with the seasons. In the fall, everything turns a vibrant red; in the winter, arrangements grow sparse, consisting of pine cones, pine branches, burgundy-berried shrubs and the flowers that bloom in Japan’s temperate climate, Senese said.

Most traditional arrangements, with three main points, are based on a scalene triangle, Senese explained. The highest element represents heaven; the intermediate element, humankind; the lowest, Earth. Traditionally, Japanese floral arrangers would cut flowers from the gardens surrounding their homes, he said.

A “less is more” mentality governs such arrangements, Senese said. “The beauty comes from what isn’t there, as much as what is there,” he said.

Branches are cut so that the arrangement is not too leafy; elements and flower varieties are purposefully limited.

“You’re meditating on the elements that you’re using and the connection of the elements to nature, to that season and yourself,” he said.

Realizing on this particular Sunday that the branches she had planned to use did not look the way she wanted, Takahashi cut red maple branches from her garden. Her husband was less than thrilled, she said, because he doesn’t like to cut the maple.

Local inspiration

Takahashi typically uses local materials, from shops in Syosset and Plainview, for her work. Sometimes, she asks students to plant certain seeds in their own gardens to grow plants for arrangements. Often even the ceramic vase she uses has been made locally by her husband, Marc Isaacs, an artist in residence at LIU Post.

When she leads workshops, Takahashi creates beginner-level arrangements. Her personal work can be much more time-consuming, she said.

Takahashi said she will often work for hours without a break. And though her students may work on a less-advanced level, Takahashi observes that they find the same focus she does.

“They concentrate on flowers,” she said, bringing her hands up like blinders around her eyes. “They don’t think about other things.”

If Takahashi’s husband of nearly 30 years approaches while she’s working, she will turn him away.

“No, I cannot talk with you right now!” Takahashi said she’ll tell him. “I cannot think [of] any other things.”

WHAT Ikebana Lecture and Hands-On Workshop

WHEN | WHERE 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Oct. 14, Farmingdale Village Hall, 361 Main St., Farmingdale

INFO $45; 516-249-0093, ext. 204; register by Oct. 5

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