WINCHESTER - In Winchester in the 1970s, a young Masako Yatsuhashi, loved to share the ancient Japanese art of Ikebana (i-kei-baa-nuh) “arranging flowers” or “making flowers alive.” And groups of friends and neighbors would gather to learn from her.
Yatsuhashi, then President of Ikenobo Ikebana, Boston Chapter would arrive at a host’s house with her apron, pruning shears, and a selection of flowers often sourced from her own garden or those of the participants. The women in the class would spend a few hours observing and creating.
The tradition of Ikebana dates back to the 6th century when such arrangements were used to adorn temples. Back in the 70’s, when I was a girl growing up in Winchester, my mom’s Ikebana arrangements adorned our glass coffee table in the living room.
Fast forward 50 years to last month at Studio on the Common when a now 89-year old Masako stood before another group of 14 Winchester friends and neighbors from the Winchester Garden Club, to share her life’s passion. But it wasn’t a traditional class. After being introduced, Yatsuhashi had little interest in talking about her craft and its complex history. At each prompt to speak, she provided only short replies before deferring to her daughter Kiyomi Yatsuhashi, herself a talented artist in Japanese textile dyeing. Seeming to feel the pressure, Kiyomi shared a bit of what she had learned about Ikebana from a lifetime of accompanying her mother to exhibitions, museums, and Japanese cultural centers around the world.
I think all of us in the room wondered if Yatsuhashi would teach at all. But wisdom comes quietly, and true masters are often short on words. When the talking stopped, the real teaching began. It was time to make an arrangement.
Addressing each other in Japanese, Masako and Kiyomi began by studying the floral material. They would hold up a pussy willow or cherry blossom branches, considering angles, leaves, flowers. They selected just the right tiny fern or small jonquil because each element of the arrangement represented thousands of years of tradition. With the materials selected, Kiyomi stepped back and Masako began.
Social psychologists talk about a phenomenon called “being in the zone.” It’s defined as, “the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Yatsuhashi was in the zone. She didn’t speak or explain what she was doing when she pruned, placed, re-pruned, re-placed, stepped back over and over again then stepped forward to move, bend, turn and align sometimes in seemingly infinitesimal degrees.
In the end, she was probably working with just 3 pieces of material, but a one-point perspective arrangement with the right variation in heights and overall balance takes time to craft into a piece of art. After about 20 minutes she had the desired outcome: a spare, harmonious arrangement of branches, ferns and flowers fit for any 6th century altar.
The class was rapt during the process. They had been “taught” and now it was their turn to try to apply what they had learned through observation. They selected their flowers and went to work building their arrangements in stone vases. In the end, 14 unique arrangements adorned the classroom.
In the role of sensei, Masako visited each student’s arrangement, her eyes bright as she studied our work. She marveled at the differences between them, but also the ways that a similar mood or quality was conveyed by two arrangements constructed in completely different ways. Sometimes she micro-adjusted a single element in a student’s work or suggested removing an element to enhance its beauty. In every case, she encouraged and celebrated the participant’s learning and reinforced their beginner steps in a craft that takes a lifetime to master.
It was a special moment at Studio on the Common, sharing the room with my mother’s teacher and the members of the Winchester Garden Club. It felt like a legacy of community, creativity, and connection that started in a Winchester living room in the 70s and was alive in the Studio again that day. It’s the kind of moment I dreamed of when I opened this space.