Mattapoisett resident masters 500-year-old floral art

May 22, 2012

Compared to the West’s overflowing vases of flowers, Japanese floral art may appear sparse, but its beauty lies in its form and simplicity.

Instead of a mass of flowers and branches, “you’re supposed to see through the arrangement,” said Ellen Flynn, a Mattapoisett resident who has studied the ancient art of Ikenobo Ikebana for seven years.

Ikenobo Ikebana is an exclusive Japanese floral society established over 500 years ago.

Flynn took her first Ikebana class at Vassar College, where she worked in the library’s acquisitions department. Since then she was invited to become a lifelong member of the Japanese society and has been certified in the first two of Ikebana's four levels.

Ikebana’s Shoka style, which Flynn uses, has three elements — shin, soe and tai that mean heaven, man and earth. Arrangements are usually made in a low vase or bowl fitted with a flower frog (or kenzan).

Starting with shin, the tallest flower or branch, the artist adds soe as the support and lastly tai as the surrounding part.

Flynn admits that the process is technical, but there is also something soothing in its organization.

In her first class, Flynn said, “I was so nervous and uptight. I knew I wasn’t doing it right. My teacher said ‘this is therapy. It’s something to bring you relaxation.’”

Flynn attributes the long-lasting arrangements (often not wilting for two weeks) to Ikebana’s philosophy.

While arranging the flowers in a traditional silk kimono she said, “You’re at the same time taking their energy but transferring your energy of love into the flowers.”

As she learned to enjoy the process, Flynn said she gained a new perspective on the natural world.

“I definitely feel like I’ve gained so much knowledge about nature,” she said. “When I’m on a walk, I’ll see things that I wasn’t aware of before I started to study the floral art.”

Always in tune to the plants around her, Flynn often collects tall grasses, flowers and branches from the area to make her arrangements along with flowers from The Mattapoisett Florist.

While Flynn creates new designs each week, she didn’t think she had much artistic talent as a kid.

“Once I started doing my Ikebana, I felt like I was an artist, and it really has enriched my life,” she said. “I’ve started to write poetry more so than I ever did before. I think there’s a connection between writing poetry and designing arrangements. It’s all part of the creative process.”

And although Flynn has spent countless hours learning Ikebana, she prefers to donate her arrangements instead of selling them.

“That changes my feelings about my work, to put a price tag on it,” she said.

After all, for Flynn, each design is an arrangement of love.