News desk | ILLINOIS

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Sitting at the long covered tables in the heart of Japan House, I close my eyes. The 18 of us do it. We are students in the class Japan House Ikebana: The Art of Japanese Flower Arranging. Professor Kimiko Gunji introduces our sixth ikebana arrangement, and this is our first step. My shod feet slip on the smooth wooden floor as I sit quietly and think. What kokoro – emotion, essence, idea – do I want to convey?

Kimiko Gunji, professor emeritus of Japanese arts and culture and former director of Japan House, left, works with Haoxiang Sun on her arrangement.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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Today we are faced with creating a hanging ikebana arrangement. For the past six weeks we’ve been working with square vases, dynamically shaped vases, and miniatures, but now we need to create dimension on a flat plane. I open my eyes, ideas taking shape as I pull two sushi mats towards me, tying them together with fine threads. The room rustles and creases as we each make the base of our structures. We may all have the same “canvas” in front of us, but by the end of our three hours together, our unique ideas will decorate the walls around us.

Photo from above of a flower arrangement with pink flowers, accented with small white flowers and purple flowers and two green leaves on each side.

The finished arrangements were exhibited at a public show at Japan House.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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As we pack into the kitchen where our materials for the day are laid out, I laugh with my classmates, a little overwhelmed by the scale of our challenge. In front of us are not only plants but also pipe cleaners, burlap, rolls of flexible wooden strips, long wooden skewers, bamboo sticks, wire netting, black mesh and staplers. Our next step is to build the support structure before adding the greenery. We closed our eyes to plan the idea first, the structure second and the plant materials last but not least.

Photo of a student choosing flowers from a table filled with vases of flowers and greenery.  Chains of red paper cranes hang a few feet from the ceiling on both sides.

Daniel Wang selects flowers for his arrangement for an exhibition at Japan House.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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Photo of a hand holding a sheet with notches on its edges.  The other hand holds scissors cutting the sheet.

Each element is carefully cut out and placed in the arrangement as students in the ikebana class work on their projects.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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Just as we all got to grips with ceramic vases, now we need to build our own, which looks like it should be easily accessible to a class with STEM students. Thinking hard, I grab some wooden slats, some burlap, and a stapler, and head back to my place.

An overhead photo of a table with seated students working on their flower arrangements, while two other students hang their arrangements on a folding screen in the background.

Students work on their projects in a craft space at Japan House as they prepare for an exhibition of their work.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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Some of us sit, some stand, while others walk around looking for structural materials. My plan is to convey a sense of intimacy – think “round”. I start cutting circles and half circles of burlap and tie them to my bamboo mats to support the heart of my arrangement. Scissors fight me, threads fight me. I look around and see my friends with furrowed brows or hair hanging down their faces as they focus intently on securing nets or bamboo to their mats.

Photo of a student's face as he bends down to adjust his flower arrangement in the foreground.

Sean Farhat-Sabet works on the final placement of a floral element as he completes his arrangement.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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Slowly but surely, the topography begins to form under our hands, and we turn to the screens behind us to hang our structures. The room is filled with an enterprising calm, punctuated by Gunji-sensei advising others, contemplative whispers, and the occasional clink of fallen materials.

Photo of a hanging flower arrangement tied to a bamboo mat.  Two burlap containers tied to the mat hold flowers, with ivy flowing between the two containers.

A finished piece hangs on a display at Japan House, ready for an exhibition of student work.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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As time is running out, I go back to the kitchen to collect plant matter. What plants will I use to convey a sense of intimacy? I know my classmates use yellow to convey joy or curiosity, and vines to indicate connection or calm. In the end, I forage outside and find lengths of ivy. Perfect, I think, for creating a sense of shelter. Gunji-sensei helps me trim the ivy until it forms a graceful arch. Then I add a deep, vibrant purple carnation in the center and step back to appreciate the full image.

After just eight weeks, we learned the basics of ikebana, made friends, and enjoyed tea. Looking around, I know I’m leaving knowing that even though my time as a student is over, I will continue to be part of the Japan House family.

Photo of a circular yellow vase containing a large yellow flower and smaller flowers and greenery.

Students in Japan House’s ikebana class worked with different types of vases while learning the art of Japanese flower arranging.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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Rosalie M. Dehner